the incessant rain, apparently the summer has begun in the UK and
Ireland. People are flocking to the stores to rekindle their passion
for the braai, or barbecue, as it is known in northern climes. Recently,
I decided to join them and bought a new braai. It came wrapped in
plastic with a cardboard picture on the front of the self-same braai
garnished with some sizzling steaks. Below the picture was a range
of warnings. The first stated that the plastic wrapping should be
disposed of carefully, as it may be dangerous to children: fair
enough. But underneath, a further message read: Warning
food not included. How many people have actually returned
the braai to the shop complaining the steaks on the picture were
absent from the package?
is an excellent, albeit idiotic, demonstration of what is known
as the compensation culture. If a warning or disclaimer is not present
on a product then all sorts of legal avenues for compensation are
left wide open. Many fear that a US-style litigation system, where
you can sue for just about anything, is developing in Europe.
this is a complicated issue. The British governments Better
Regulation Task Force feels that the notion of a compensation culture
in the UK is a myth. The UK is nowhere close to the US, and accident
claims for injuries, for example, are dropping rather than increasing.
Some companies have an interest in increasing the hype around the
so-called compensation culture, as it can potentially discourage
claims. Some may even try to use it as an excuse to weasel out of
paying genuine claims. Ambulance-chasing lawyers operating on a
no win, no fee basis and attracting clients through
adverts offering easy money can be equally dubious.
like most things, a balance is needed. We need to accept that the
idea of suing for minor mishaps can reach the level of the absurd
if not regulated. Tony Blair, in a recent speech in which he attacked
the compensation culture, cited the example of a local council removing
its hanging flower baskets from a street because of fears they could
fall on someones head.
the same time, compensation cannot be dismissed as a dirty issue.
In South Africa, Paula Howell, of Pretorias Legal Resources
Centre, has commented in the Business Report Online that possibly
tens of thousands of compensation claims from the Workmens
Compensation Fund cannot be finalised because employers have not
completed the correct forms. Avoiding responsibility in this way
is as problematic as making a spurious compensation claim. The law
can force people to take responsibility for protecting workers and
take to task those who make overstated compensation claims. But
the law is a blunt instrument. At the end of the day, the issue
boils down to personal responsibility and fairness. Putting workers
or consumers in a situation where they may be in danger implies
accountability from those placing them at risk. Equally, expecting
companies to fork out if you do something stupid or exaggerate injury
is hardly reasonable. Warnings on packaging can be useful; take,
for example, health warnings on cigarette packs. A few more warnings
in South Africa may not go amiss, such as cautioning people of the
dangers of carrying workers on the back of open vehicles or overcrowding
taxis. But lets not go overboard. As I fired up my new braai
this weekend, opened a beer and a bag of peanuts, then came the
clincher: Warning this product may contain nuts!
Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis
of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its
relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.
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