December 2019

Professional negligence claims to soar as Royal Commissions and Inquiries put the spotlight on culture and behaviour

An "age of public inquiries" will see claims against medical, legal and other professionals surge, writes Katherine Ruschen.

It hasn’t been a great 12 months to be working in a profession.

Royal commissions, public inquiries and court cases have put an increasingly bright spotlight on professions that once saw little media and no public interest.

Certainly four Queensland flood engineers would never have expected to find themselves at the centre of one of the largest ever class actions in Australia.

Following the devastating 2011 Queensland floods their actions became the focus of a long-running and hugely complex court case that saw expert witnesses cross-examined for 22 consecutive days.

In his recent judgment Justice Beech-Jones said: "I accept that each of Seqwater, Sunwater and the (Queensland) State are vicariously liable for any breaches of the duty of care owed by the flood engineers that they each employed."

That case is part of a wider trend where professions that were once seen as above reproach are increasingly having their actions dissected in detail.

I’ve been advising health and legal professionals for over a decade but it’s really in the last three to four years that there’s been a noticeable uplift in negligence and misconduct complaints against them.

One important reason for this is that we live in an age of public inquiries which are attracting substantial media attention and focus significantly on the rights of the consumer.

And medical and other professionals can expect to see a further lift in complaints and claims against them in the wake of the royal commissions into banking and aged care.

Given the profile of these proceedings, disgruntled patients and clients become increasingly emboldened to take action.

Fifteen years ago many patients or clients would have been unaware that there were even regulatory bodies they could complain to. Today they are more knowledgeable and they’re not holding back when they’re unhappy.

Research has shown it's often suburban-based health or professional services practices, that were most vulnerable to negligence claims and misconduct complaints against them.

That’s not a reason for any complacency for mid-sized or larger practices. The banking royal commission has highlighted very clearly that scale and strength is not a guaranteed protection against a determined group of unhappy individuals.

 

Author: Katherine Ruschen