Atta Legal ~ re Tunisia Inquest

Following the death of 30 British tourists in Tunisia the coroners finding may have a direct effect on insurance cover and tour operator liabilities. Atta’s legal advisor Alan Bowen comments

The formal inquest into the deaths of 30 British tourists shot at a beach resort in Tunisia in June 2015 concluded yesterday with a finding by the coroner that they had all been ‘unlawfully killed’

Immediately afterwards, and in front of the worlds media, Irwin Mitchell, a well-known claimant firm of solicitors, announced the families would be suing the tour operator for the deaths of their relatives and for the injuries caused to those that survived. This would be the first attempt to make a tour operator liable for the acts of a terrorist and could have serious implications for the whole travel market.

The inquest was urged by the families lawyers to make a finding that the deaths were at least partially due to neglect by the hotel and or the tour operator but the coroner refused to do so, not necessarily because he didn’t think there was any neglect, but because the death occurred outside the UK, he did not believe it was within his power to make such a finding.

The inquest considered the relevance of an earlier attack on tourist in the Bardo Museum in Tunis itself which killed over 20 German tourists visiting at the time and whether the FCO advice, who issue travel advice on behalf of the UK government, should have been changed to warn against travel in light of the risks. It became clear that the FCO may have had political issues, wishing to support the democracy in Tunisia following the Arab Spring uprising and certainly had discussion with the operator TUI who had a very large operation to Tunisia before deciding not to recommend a ban on travel. They did however warn of a ‘real threat of terrorism’ in Tunisia but it appears TUI did not tell any of its customers of the changed advice. Indeed it produced an ‘advice sheet’ for staff which said the FCO advice had not changed and that everyone was enjoying their holidays….

Action is likely to be taken in the High Court against TUI who have always strenuously denied liability for the deaths, whilst at the same time, trying to avoid the PR nightmare that befell Thomas Cooks who for years attempted to deny any liability for the deaths of two children who were poisoned by carbon monoxide in a hotel in Corfu. The negative publicity which hit the operator after the coroner’s inquest in 2015 lead to an admittance of liability and a payment to the parents, but even then that was overshadowed  by the discovery that the operator had recovered far more compensation themselves, for damage to their reputation from the hotel!

If the case comes to trial, it is likely to be around 2 years ahead, if TUI are found to be responsible, and in their case the hotel was run by Riu Hotels, which happens to be owed by TUI and was subject to criticism regarding incompetent guards, a lack of beach security, and virtually no CCTV coverage unlike other similar hotels in the resort, it could have a profound effect on the entire industry.

TUI do have a policy of defending these cases, even in a situation where it might be better to settle to avoid any precedent being created, but if they go to trial and lose, operators would have to consider whether, irrespective of FCO or other government advice, they could continue to offer holidays to anywhere where there had been previous terrorist activity. This could stop holidays to Paris, Nice, Brussels and even London. Liability insurance rates would soar and operating in Africa could be a great deal more difficult. We can only hope that it never reaches that point.

Alan Bowen | 01 March 2017