Tuesday 20 August 2019

Fiona Muldoon: 'There is no way around it - if we want generous insurance awards, it means accepting higher premiums'

Painful costs: While many claims are genuine, around 20pc are thought to be exaggerated or even fraudulent. Stock image
Painful costs: While many claims are genuine, around 20pc are thought to be exaggerated or even fraudulent. Stock image

Fiona Muldoon

Without doubt, insurance costs have risen in recent years, and for many business and personal customers, this has been a very difficult pill.

Many factors make up the cost of insurance, and it is sometimes hard for people to decide what is going on in a war of words where there has been more talk than real change in the four years since I became CEO of FBD Insurance plc.

I have repeatedly pointed to the high cost of injury claims as being the main driver of premium increases, and I am in good company. Former High Court president Nicholas Kearns, chairman of the Government's Personal Injuries Commission, recently compared Irish compensation culture deniers to climate change deniers.

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He reported that payouts for whiplash and other soft tissue injuries in Ireland are four times those of the UK. These huge payouts also incentivise fraud and claims exaggeration, which further adds to cost as we try to keep pace with the fraudsters.

At an Oireachtas Committee last week, FBD stated that about 20pc of claims are suspected as fraudulent or exaggerated. These range from staged crashes to someone who is genuinely in an accident, but grossly exaggerates the pain or the impact on their lives in the hope of a bumper pay-out. Of the two, exaggeration is much the bigger problem. Despite the recent political bluster, FBD has never claimed that fraud is the only issue.

Much was made by TD Pearse Doherty of the fact that the insurance industry reports only a small number of cases to the gardaí, but exaggeration of claims is not an offence, unless the claimant gives false or misleading evidence during the court hearing, and the judge finds this to be the case.

Even then, there have been very few cases where a judge has dismissed the claim outright, sometimes only disallowing the bit of the claim deemed to be without merit. Notably in some cases, the ruling has made awards despite the judge openly questioning the credibility of the claimant.

Gross exaggeration is fraud. However, in the way our legal process operates, regrettably, it is not a criminal offence. Encouraged by some solicitors, many people, who consider themselves otherwise honest, seem to believe that exaggeration is fair game.

Let me also tackle the false idea that we are making outsized profits at the expense of our customers.

Some commentators sensationally note that industry profits jumped by 1,300pc between 2016 and 2017 (the latest date industry figures are available).

This is true, and while it makes a good populist headline, it is a bit meaningless when the industry made a tiny net profit, including investment income, in 2016 of €16m across 17 insurers, which went up to €227m in 2017.

Between 2013 and 2017, the industry lost €757m insuring motorists and €349m insuring Irish businesses.

Some insurance companies collapsed, including Quinn, Setanta and Enterprise Insurance. FBD is the only Irish insurer left, and 85pc of our business is with small and medium businesses.

We insure the shops, pubs, restaurants and farms that make up the backbone of the Irish economy. FBD has come through a difficult time, too, and we have completed a major turnaround, cut costs, lost customers and sold businesses to get back to a profit of €50m in 2018.

Unsurprisingly, we are proud of that. Over five years, FBD had €1.8bn of revenue and we made a profit of €22m. This includes the profit in 2018. This is a tiny margin of 1.2pc.

Having come through the worst, FBD would like to grow, we want more customers, but we will not sell below cost. FBD is a business, with shareholders who put their money at risk, and they expect us to make a return. So, like all businesses, we do not apologise for making a fair profit. And, like all good businesses, we know that our success is entirely dependent on our customers' success.

We share the deep frustrations of those customers and we have been calling for reform for many years. There has been too much talk and debate and not enough action. We need serious structural reforms. We have too many injury claims. Payouts are too high and legal costs are too high. We need to tackle the impossible standards that small businesses are being held to in personal injury cases.

Courts are holding small businesses 100pc responsible for anyone crossing their threshold, with little or no personal responsibility bestowed on the individual. Every accident cannot mean an automatic entitlement to compensation and proving negligence should be more difficult.

As a society, we can choose between generous awards and lower insurance costs. But we cannot have both.

Fiona Muldoon is CEO at FBD Insurance

Irish Independent

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