Children unlawfully killed in Corfu hotel - should Thomas Cook be compensated?

21 May 2015

Last week a Coroner’s Inquest ruled that the children of Neil Shepherd and Sharon Wood had been unlawfully killed whilst on a 2006 holiday in a Thomas Cook hotel in Corfu, and that Thomas Cook had breached its duty of care towards the family.  Christi, 7 and Bobby, 6 died from carbon monoxide poisoning that leaked into their bungalow from a faulty boiler.  Their father and his second wife were also hospitalised. 

It was only after the Inquest had concluded, and nearly 9 years after the children’s death, that Thomas Cook finally issued a public apology.  At the Inquest, the Chief Executive, Peter Fankhauser had maintained that there was no need to apologise, because there was no wrong doing by his company.

The family had booked a package holiday with Thomas Cook, and the parents brought a legal claim against the company.  Reports suggest that they each received about £350,000 in compensation. Given the comments at the Inquest, I presume that this was an out of court settlement, without any admission of liability.

As a solicitor who specialises in foreign personal injury claims, it may seem surprising that I think those were good settlements.  I say ‘good’ but not ‘fair’ because I know how our legal system limits the amount of compensation that is payable when a tragedy like this occurs. 

The case has recently became newsworthy again because Thomas Cook also made a compensation claim, from which they received £3,500,000.  Apparently this was paid by the Greek company that owned the bungalow in acknowledgement of the damage to Thomas Cook’s reputation, and the loss of revenue that arose.

It is worth pausing to note that the jury in the Inquest found that Thomas Cook had failed to check the hotel’s safety records – a reasonable step given that it was promoted as a Thomas Cook approved hotel.

In legal terms none of this is unusual.  The parents were able to rely upon the Package Travel Regulations of 1992, which were brought into English law pursuant to a European directive.  The Regulations provide a very simple and very good means of legal redress when something goes wrong on a package tour.

The basic principle is that if a consumer in the UK buys a package from a UK based company like Thomas Cook, a claim can be brought against Thomas Cook in the UK courts.  Prior to the Regulations, the consumer would have had to think about bringing a claim, for example, against the Greek Hotel, in the Greek courts.  Part of the reasoning behind the Rules is that if the Thomas Cook brochure says that a foreign hotel has been approved by them, then the consumer should be able to rely upon this, not least because that is in part how Thomas Cook make their profits.

Of course Thomas Cook cannot be expected to control everything in all of the hotels that they introduce, and so the buck does not always stop with them.  The consumer sues Thomas Cook, and Thomas Cook has to pay up.  However, Thomas Cook can still investigate to see if the accident happened because of some oversight that was beyond their control, and entirely due to the fault of the foreign hotel.  If that happens, Thomas Cook can then bring a claim against the foreign hotel. 

Apparently the Greek authorities investigated in 2010, and cleared Thomas Cook of any responsibility for the deaths.  I imagine that is why they claimed against the owners of the hotel, although I note that the evidence has now shown that Thomas Cook were evidently at fault due to their failure to inspect.  Perhaps this was taken into account in the settlement.

As to whether this can be considered a great public relations exercise for Thomas Cook is questionable, given that they apparently received 10 times more in compensation than each of the parents who lost their children.  The late apology, coupled with an announcement that £1,500,000 of the compensation would be donated to UNICEF seem like rather hollow gestures made in response to a storm of criticism.

The sad reality is that commercial interests are often held to be more important than human life.  Obviously I don’t know what happened behind the scenes, but as a lawyer who acts for victims in these types of tragedies I am used to insurance companies and their lawyers conducting cases in this way. That is why we need good laws like the Package Tour Regulations, and health and safety rules.

Safety tips when booking a holiday

  • Where possible, always book as part of a package tour through a reputable company – although Neil Shepherd and Sharon Wood did this, sadly on this occasion they were let down. Generally, it’s safe to assume that hotels that are affiliated with more reputable companies are likely to meet safety requirements; 
  • Enquire carefully about any extra excursions or activity bookings – boat trips, quad bikes etc, to see if they are part of the package.  If they are not and something goes wrong you may find yourself having to bring a claim against a foreign company in a foreign court;
  • Be wary of booking on the Internet, and booking directly with foreign businesses.  It may save you money, but you will get less security, and less opportunity for redress if you need to claim;
  • If you book directly with an international hotel chain, you may not necessarily enjoy the security that you are hoping for.  Some of the large chains operate franchise type agreements with local foreign companies, and will seek to deny liability if anything goes wrong.  They will say that the local company is responsible.  The fine print on their website or in their contracts should make this clear.  If it does not they may still be liable for any claim.

Thankfully, tragedies do not happen very often, and the greatest risks on holiday are still sunburn, stomach upsets and alcohol.  So above all, wear a hat, use sunscreen and watch what you eat and drink!

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