No Win No Fee No Way
"Have you been involved in an accident that wasn't your fault?"
Back on Monday 23 May 2005 I was cycling home from work, minding my own business. I still remember what was going through my head at the time - I was imagining what The Matrix films would have been like if they'd starred Vic Reeves instead of Keanu Reeves. Anyway, I was heading south along Lewes Road towards the junction with Coombe Road. The traffic was at a standstill although the cycle-path was relatively clear; I was making my way through a corridor of space between a line of parked cars and a line of stationary vehicles. The sun was out and it was a pleasant evening.
It was some time between 5.30 and 6.00pm that I drew level with a 49 bus, which was in the main part of the road and still a short way before the bus stop outside The Lectern pub. Just as I was about to overtake it, the doors opened and a young man stepped off, straight into my path. I remember thinking quite clearly, shit - I'm not going to be able to avoid hitting him, before I actually did.
It was a glancing blow and he merely staggered between a couple of the parked cars. I wasn't so lucky. I'd been knocked off balance by the collision and came crashing down on my right side, straight in front of the bus's front wheels.
I really hope the traffic doesn't choose this moment to start moving again, I thought. I looked up and saw the bus driver, a woman with dark curly hair and dark sunglasses, staring down at me. So I'd been spotted at least. I attempted to stand up and as I did so, what had just happened began to hit home.
"Fuck! Fuck!" I remarked, "Fuck!"
"Shit, you alright mate?" asked the young man.
"Fuck!" I answered. He helped me and my bike up onto the pavement and then ran off. I saw the reason for his urgency - standing at the bus stop was a number 10 bus he'd obviously been so eager to catch he'd persuaded the driver of the 49 to open the doors for him in the middle of the traffic.
I began to wheel my bike south along Lewes Road, intending to go home and recover. However, it soon became apparent that my right arm wasn't working properly - I could hardly move it without intense pain shooting through the elbow.
I phoned a friend who met me in London Road about ten minutes later. We locked the bike up and got a taxi to A and E in Sussex County Hospital.
I was initially seen quickly - it didn't seem to be that crowded for once - although there was the usual shuffling from pillar to post and changing the location of the waiting to give the illusion of progress. I eventually had a couple of X-rays and was diagnosed with a closed fracture of the right radial head. As the fracture was so near the elbow they were unable to set it in plaster. I would have to wear my right arm in a sling for the duration and was signed off work for four weeks.
I got a cab home and eventually worked out a way to sleep sitting up without moving my arm. It wasn't easy. I'm right handed as well, so going to the lavatory was fun...
The next day I was together enough to phone Brighton and Hove Buses to find out about compensation - and discovered even using the phone becomes a challenge when you've lost the use of your right arm. I spoke to a very sympathetic man in customer services, Patrick, who listened to my account and said he would put my report through to the Lewes Road Garage managers to identify the driver and would find out about what I should do next.
This was where the fun began. Patrick then emailed me to say that from then on I should deal with a Mr McInnes in their insurance department, and supplied me with his telephone number. I called the number several times over the next few days without an answer. Eventually, over a week after the incident someone answered the phone. It transpired Mr McInnes was on holiday until 6 June.
Were they stalling for time? Why?
I don't know for how much time the police store CCTV footage, but I'm sure it's not that long. I thought that it would be a shame if this delay meant that I'd be unable to use CCTV to corroborate my story.
Almost immediately I received a letter back advising me that it had been referred to their claims handlers, Van Ameyde & Wallis in "Edingburgh". I was eventually contacted in mid July by a "claims technician", D Tait who arranged for me to be interviewed by Alwyn Evans from Ravenstone UK on 18 July.
The interview went smoothly enough, Mr Evans was sympathetic and friendly.
I heard from D Tait again in August saying they were forwarding my statement to Brighton and Hove Buses apparently to "assist them in identifying whether the bus said to be involved was operated by them".
What? The wording of this sentence implies there wasn't even a bus involved any more... bizarre.
Eventually at the end of August Technician Tait wrote to me again, this time enclosing Brighton and Hove Buses's account of the incident:
"They have now identified the bus driver. He reports that he was stationary outside the Lecturn (sic) pub waiting for traffic to move off. As he was waiting he observed a young male and two or three of his friends crossing Lewes Road. He reports they walked between his bus and the car in front and the male at the front walked into the cycle lane without looking and at that point that male was hit by your cycle.Well, that wasn't how I recalled the incident at all. The young male (a human, by the way) was alone and I quite clearly recollect him stepping down from the bus interior before we collided. If the collision had occurred ahead of the bus as they claimed, I wouldn't have fallen to the ground directly in front of it - if anything I'd have collided with the car in front and probably wouldn't have been injured in the first place.
In the circumstances our Principal's (sic) do not accept that the injuries you have suffered arose as a result of negligence on the part of their driver and have instructed us to deny liability on their behalf."
In addition "two or three of his friends" is a rather woolly statement. Firstly, distinguishing between two and three is a fairly basic skill and secondly, how on earth can the driver have known that these people were his friends, even if they had existed?
And to cap it all, the driver appears to have had a sex change between the incident and being interviewed.
I actually saw the driver again a month later on Saturday 17 September 2005. By now she was a woman again and this time was driving a number 1 bus towards Mile Oak at 1.35pm. In this case the bus in question was vehicle 628 "Dennis Hobden" (Brighton buses being named after celebrities and historical figures with a local link). Driver number indicated on the ticket was 2684. Given this information, I'm sure some crosschecking of the duty records for this day and for Monday 23 May 2005 would confirm my story. It's a shame I don't have access to them.
I had access to everything else though - Van Ameyde & Wallis were very helpful and provided me with copies of all the relevant papers to do with the case including the full transcript of my interview with Mr Evans.
Given this disappointing outcome, I decided to engage the services of one of the many No Win No Fee companies plying their trade all over the media. The first one I tried seemed very enthusiastic at first, and referred me to one of their lawyers in Bolton. However, upon learning Brighton & Hove Buses's denial of the facts, this lawyer dropped the case like a hot potato claiming that there was no point if one of the parties was prepared to lie.
I beg your pardon? Was he saying that if someone threatens to take you to court the way to get out of it is simply to lie?
I contacted another company and was telephoned by an ebullient young man who seemed very excited about the fact that I would probably be compensated around £3,000. Until he heard about Brighton & Hove Buses's denial, after which I never heard from him again.
At this point I gave up. There's a three-year limit to injury compensation claims in the UK, and I didn't see any point in contacting any more companies. Their modus operandi actually seems to be "No win, no fee... as long as you're going to win."
I suppose the lesson to be learned from all this is to get the police involved as soon as possible so as to make best use of the CCTV available. My arm is now OK, although I don't think I'll ever be able to straighten it quite as much as the uninjured one. I'm a more cautious cyclist these days, especially when going past buses.
And when I'm not cycling I still use Brighton & Hove buses. How else am I supposed to get around?