BBC News

Scottish councils pay out millions in damages

By Marc Ellison
Data journalist, BBC Scotland

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionPotholes alone - the most common reason for a damages claim - cost Glasgow council £1.7m since 2000

Scottish councils have forked out £15.5m in damages over the last five years, according to data obtained by BBC Scotland.

Most compensation was pothole and water-related, but payments were also made for violent employees, wrongful arrests, and science experiments.

Payments ranged from £1.50 for spilt liquid to £73,833 for a home help issue.

However, the figures show an overall decrease in council payouts.

The data, collated from a series of coordinated freedom of information requests, reveals a £3m drop in annual damages paid out by local authorities in Scotland since 2010.

  • You can explore the damages data using the SEARCHABLE DATABASE developed by BBC Scotland.
image captionBBC Scotland has created a searchable database of damages paid out by Scottish councils

This apparent decline in damages payouts comes at a time when Scottish councils are having to cut their combined spending by £150m.

As of October 2014, East Renfrewshire council had made more payouts (£61,678) than any other council for the year - including Glasgow (£59,171).

The Scottish Borders and Midlothian were the only local authorities to see an increase in payouts in the last couple of years.

Compensation culture

Following a similar freedom of information request in 2012, the Scottish Conservative party said there was a "compensation culture" in Scotland which was "spiralling out of control".

The most recent data compiled by BBC Scotland reveals that one resident was paid £7 by North Ayrshire council for a pair of shorts stolen from a changing room; another was paid £40 by Clackmannanshire council for a damaged garden gnome.

But Syd Smith, a personal injury lawyer and partner at Thompsons Solicitors, said the myth of a compensation culture has discouraged many injured people from making claims over the last 10 years.

He said: "The propaganda which has been put out by the insurance industry, with its vast PR resources, about a compensation culture has gained traction and has had the desired effect.

"I have yet to come across a council or insurer who hands out free money for vexatious or frivolous claims, and no lawyer wants to act in such cases anyway because they would be a waste of time and money with nothing to show for them."

Some of the more unusual claims in the data

  • £21,031 - loss of a fingertip in an "allegedly faulty door" (Clackmannanshire);
  • £5,038 - a failure to educate (Aberdeen);
  • £3,500 - body placed in wrong burial plot (North Ayrshire);
  • £3,000 - burns from a science experiment (East Ayrshire);
  • £1,000 - claimant fell through boards covering a hole when visiting a cemetery (North Ayrshire);
  • £740 - a council workman dropped a chair on a car (Clackmannanshire);
  • £644 - for damage caused to a vehicle by a golf ball (Glasgow);
  • £100 - police CS spray (Renfrewshire).

'Targeted investment'

While some of the claims are unusual the damages data reveals the majority are legitimate claims for compensation.

Councils have reimbursed residents for sexual and physical abuse by council staff, slips and falls, and damage to vehicles and homes.

In 2011, Glasgow council paid out £1.3m in surfacing-related claims - including falls and vehicle damage - to 2,763 residents.

A council spokesman said: "Any authority would hope that effective and safe delivery of services and targeted investment in infrastructure would mean there will be fewer opportunities to make a successful claim - and investment in road surfacing would be an example of that."

Surfacing damages payouts by Glasgow council have since dropped to £43,379 in 2014.

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionA tenth of all Shetland council's claims since 2008 were related to damage caused by employees reversing

But this "welcome" reduction in overall claims was played down by the council spokesman.

He said: "The figure for 2014 is currently very low - but the nature of the process means that it takes some time for claims to be resolved.

"The impact of sustained poor weather in 2011 also demonstrates that these matters are still not entirely within our control."

Avril Sweeney, head of Fife council's risk management team, added that their claim data captures the date of the incident occurring, and not the date of payment.

"Under Scots law a claimant has up to three years to claim for an injury and up to five years to claim for loss or damage to property.

"This means that there will still be claims to be paid for the last five years, so these are not final figures."

Ms Sweeney said the council regularly reviews claim statistics as part of its overall risk management strategy.

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