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Life's no beach for court-wary Aussies

Life-saving services are now under a cloud on Australian beaches
Life-saving services are now under a cloud on Australian beaches  

By Grant Holloway

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australians have long prided themselves on having a fairly relaxed and pragmatic attitude to life.

But if events of the last few months are anything to go by, that reputation for down-to-earth practicality is under severe threat.

Suddenly, doctors are afraid to treat patients; life guards are unwilling to patrol beaches and local councils are chaining up the playground equipment.

A spate of extraordinary compensation payouts by the courts has triggered a public liability insurance crisis that show little signs of abating.

The most critical issue is the possible collapse of the nation's largest medical insurer United Medical Protection, which could leave around two-thirds of Australian doctors without insurance.

While the federal government is currently providing a capital guarantee to keep the insurer in business, the issue will reach crisis point again at the end of June when that support is reviewed.

The key doctor's organization, the Australian Medical Association, is asking the government to set up a national care and rehabilitation scheme for victims of medical accidents to defray the impact of massive insurance claims.

But such a scheme could take years to establish, and in the meantime the federal government and state governments are at loggerheads over who is responsible for the mess, and who should clean it up.

The latest public liability issue to emerge is a decision by catholic schools in New South Wales state to drop a popular ''work experience" program for students because of soaring insurance costs.

Beaches to mountaintops

Up to 20,000 students will be affected by the move.

"We were very reluctant to make the move, but we had no choice," NSW Catholic Education Commission policy officer Ian Baker told Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Another victim of the crisis is a pack of Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes which are part of dog-sled tourism business in the Australian snowfields.

The owner of the 18 dogs says he may have to put the dogs down because he cannot afford the $5.5 million insurance coverage now needed to stay in business.

Similarly, a $2 million payout to a man paralyzed after diving into the surf at Sydney's popular Bondi Beach has councils and surf lifesaving organizations re-considering the viability of patrolling beaches.

Victims' rights

The mayor of Queensland's Gold Coast, one of Australia's most well-known stretches of beach, said lifesaving services were now under a cloud.

"You would have to ask yourself should we be in the business of trying to protect people from themselves. This has far reaching effects for the lifeguard services and lifesaving on the Gold Coast," Mayor Gary Baildon said last week.

State governments in New South Wales and Victoria have already introduced legislation to curb liabilities for some industries and councils, but those moves will not be enough to stem the tide of litigation still in the legal system.

And lawyers groups are fighting back, saying government moves to restrict public liability are eroding the rights of victims to receive adequate compensation for their injuries.

As the crisis seems to grow worse each day, Australians are now left wondering how their traditional catch cry of "she'll be right" got replaced by "see you in court".




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