Gas leak case cries out for Woolf

THE RECENT settlement of a personal injury claim at the doors of the High Court has drawn fierce criticism over the approach and attitude of public utilities towards damages claims. The case also resulted in a call for large corporations, public bodies and service providers to mediate in damages claims against them and only litigate as a last resort.

The criticism and call for change comes from John Stitt, senior partner of London-based Stitt & Co.

Stitt acted for 57-year-old widow, Gillian Dawnay, in a damages claim against British Gas Services.

The case on facts alone was a worrying one, and Stitt believes there are probably far more cases of its kind in the pipe-line. Cases, he says in which other litigants may be facing the same intractable approach from British Gas that Dawnay suffered.

British Gas installed a conventional gas-fired boiler and Potterton programmer in the kitchen at Dawnay's west London home, as part of a gas heating and boiler system.

However, she claimed that from 1986 to 1996 – and in particular from 1993 onwards – the boiler system discharged significant quantities of carbon monoxide.

Even though British Gas was called in to service the heating system, it failed to warn her of the danger posed by the boiler's location – in a small cupboard which did not allow sufficient space for ventilation.

Dawnay says that as a result, she suffered severe long term carbon monoxide poisoning – which she claimed resulted from a faulty gas flue – and has left her suffering from short term memory impairment, dizziness, pal-pitations, fainting, loss of balance, stumbling, muscular aches, poor eyesight, nausea, diarrhoea and severe headaches.

Although Dawnay acce-pted a £37,000 offer to settle her claim for damages for long term carbon monoxide poisoning, Stitt says the case highlights major pitfalls in the present system.

He says he views the stance taken by British Gas from the beginning as a scandal, and accuses it of using its weight in a bid to ward off a genuine claim by a vulnerable individual.

"I see this case as scandalous from the point of view of the poor widow making the claim, and also from the point of view of British Gas shareholders as well," he says.

"My client has suffered unnecessary stress and worry as a result of the unbending standpoint that British Gas adopted, and it now faces a legal bill approaching £200,000, which cannot be good news for its shareholders.

"We asked for a meeting with British Gas at the outset of the case and it did not even reply to my letter. Yet if it had – and had made the offer of settlement that was finally made at the doors of the court – I would have advised acceptance then."

"This is a case which cried out for mediation, yet British Gas has been unbending and was not prepared to get together to discuss a possible settlement," says Stitt.

"It remains to be seen what will happen when the Woolf recommendations are introduced in April. I hope that they will provide some sort of remedy for situations such as this.

"I would hope that a judge would consider the Woolf reforms, which entitle him in a case such as this to contact British Gas and then insist that attempts should be made to settle the matter.

"Their costs on this action must have been around £100,000 as ours were. Costs of that nature are out of all proportion to the size of the claim.

"And one of the worst aspects of the whole case is that even though we were awarded costs, they are still to be taxed. This means that at the end of the day, Dawnay is probably going to lose the bulk of the money she has accepted in having to meet the taxed down aspect of costs.

"I hope that the Woolf recommendations will help prevent this sort of thing happening in the future, but I think that it should be statutorily incumbent on public bodies, like suppliers of gas, electricity and water, and large corporations, to mediate.

"If mediation fails, then they still have litigation as a long stop, but it should be a long stop rather than the norm."