'Fundamentally dishonest’ tripping claim with costs summarily assessed

Paul Morris v Warrington Borough Council – DJ Hugman St Helens County Court

Paul Morris v Warrington Borough Council – DJ Hugman St Helens County Court

Summary

Weightmans has secured a finding of fundamental dishonesty in a claim brought against Warrington Borough Council. The judge also stripped the claimant of his costs protection, ordering him to pay the council’s legal costs of defending the claim.

In detail

The claimant alleged he tripped and fell on the public highway. The council had immediate concerns about the veracity of the claim as a whole to include the alleged accident circumstances, the value of the loss of earnings claim and the claimant’s apparent links to other individuals who had made liability claims against the council. Accordingly, the council expressly pleased in its defence that the claim was fundamentally dishonesty. The claim was promptly discontinued however the council pursued an application for a finding of fundamental dishonesty under CPR 44.16.

Interestingly, and unusually, the court ordered a preliminary hearing to determine whether the FD application should be allowed to proceed. The court was informed of the wider considerations for local authorities when defending fraudulent liability claims, in particular the duty to protect public funds and the council’s resultant zero tolerance approach to such claims. The court allowed the application to proceed with a timetable through to a final hearing. Upon considering the evidence, the judge was satisfied that the claim was fundamentally dishonest for the following reasons:-

  1. The claimant’s evidence as to the route he was taking was illogical.
  2. The alleged defect was insufficient in size for the claimant’s foot to have gone into it as he alleged.
  3. The alleged injuries were inconsistent with the fall.
  4. The claimant’s evidence that he did not know other people on Facebook who had previously brought claims against the council was evasive.
  5. The claimant had not produced sufficient evidence to prove he was incapable of working when he was in fact holidaying in Majorca. The excuse of relying on his solicitors received short thrift from the judge.

Conclusions and implications

Even though the legislation on fundamental dishonesty has now been in force for some time, successful findings against claimants in liability claims are perhaps not as prevalent as they could be. Potentially this is due to strategic discontinuances by claimants at the point that fraud is detected. This claim is a reminder that despite discontinuance at the earliest stage of litigation, the court can still make findings of fundamental dishonesty. This is important. It allows local authorities to maintain and pursue a robust stance against fraudulent claims and protect the public purse by recovering costs from claimants and preventing claims being brought without sanction.

Simply withdrawing a fraudulent claim is not a lifeboat and a claimant will remain susceptible to the consequences of his or her actions. This was recently confirmed by the Court of Appeal in the context of contempt proceedings in the case of Zurich Insurance v Romaine [2019]; per LJ Haddon-Cave, “I would add that the message needs to go out to those who might be tempted to bring - or lend their names to - fraudulent claims: that dishonest claimants cannot avoid being liable to committal proceedings merely by discontinuing their original fraudulent claim”.

Warrington Council leader, Cllr Russ Bowden said: “This is a good result - it sends the message that fraudulent claims do not pay and that they won’t be tolerated. To try and deceive the council by making a false claim in this way is a flagrant attempt to financially benefit at a time when we need to be focusing our resources on protecting the most vulnerable."

If you have any questions or would like to know more about our legal update, please contact Sue Milne, Partner, on 0161 233 7348 or suzanne.milne@weightmans.com

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