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Cedric Stephens | The tragedy of Jamaica’s motor insurance compensation system

Gareth Davis Sr wrote a heart-rending article in The Gleaner on January 2. Former market vendor Novellete Fuller was the subject. She was a passenger in a truck that crashed in Portland’s Rio Grande Valley in December 2008. Fourteen persons were killed. Davis’s follow-up piece was written fifteen years later.

As reported by Davis, despite receiving initial assistance, including $20,000 from then Prime Minister Bruce Golding and Daryl Vaz, who was then member of Parliament for Western Portland, Miss Fuller claims to have received no more support, and the special fund set up for the children of the deceased has become obsolete, leaving survivors like Fuller facing ongoing challenges, including housing insecurity and haunting memories of the tragedy.

Miss Fuller describes the impact of the physical, post-traumatic stress and economic fallout from the accident this way: “Eevery time mi board a vehicle and it driving fast or the driver swerve, I have flashes of the accident, which prevents me from going back to sell at the market. Selling at the market in Kingston [Coronation Market] was what I did every week before the truck accident. I would pack up all my produce [yam, bananas, dasheen, and cocoa] and board di truck at Mill Bank for the long journey. I was the breadwinner for my family, and it was just a routine for me, but the accident forced me to give up all of that, and since then, life has not been the same for me. Mi just couldn’t deal wid it anymore.”

Miss Fuller concluded her story this way: “My whole life has changed for the worse, and I don’t even have a roof over my head or a place to call home. Some time ago, mi apply fi a Poor Relief house, but because mi never did have no land, mi no get it. I was at di Christmas tree lighting on Wednesday in Port Antonio, and all the memories of the truck accident came back to me because di same night dem light di Christmas tree in 2008 a di same night di truck accident gwaan.”

‘Dem no business’

Here are some excerpts from articles that I wrote when the accident occurred and 10 years later:

• Victims and dependants of those who were injured or killed in the Portland (market truck) accident are unlikely to get any compensation.

• Sadly, my prediction was spot-on. A review by this newspaper of what is now called the Rio Grande Valley Tragedy, confirmed it. Conditions have not improved despite the passage of time.

• Linford Jackson is one example of the scores of persons in the area whose lives were disrupted by dysfunctions in the motor vehicle injury compensation system. The Motor Vehicles Insurance (Third-Party Risks) Act was passed nearly 80 (now 85) years ago. Its aim was to lessen these kinds of personal catastrophes that continue to occur because of traffic accidents. Mr Jackson nearly lost his left leg in the accident. He had hopes of getting an insurance pay-out to ease his pain and suffering and loss of income. This did not happen. “The insurance say dem no business,” he was quoted as saying.

• Insurance companies, according to sources, lobbied very strongly against providing liability coverage to persons who travelled in the backs of market trucks. Their opposition to providing coverage was based on two arguments. It was the responsibility of the legislature and the police to ensure that large numbers of persons were not improperly seated in the back of market trucks. The authorities should control the practice. This was a weak and self-serving argument. Isn’t insurance about managing risks? Even in the absence of a modern road traffic regulatory regime, insurers are not averse to providing protection to persons who travel as passengers in public-passenger vehicles and robot taxis.

• ‘The second argument was, incredibly, stated as: “If general insurers were forced to indemnify such passengers, then the rates for commercial vehicles like market trucks, inevitably, would have to be increased, massively.”.

• No evidence was ever furnished to show that market trucks were involved in more accidents than other types of vehicles or that passengers in these vehicles were more prone to suffer more injuries in crashes. Secondly, motor insurers have never been shy about raising premiums to consumers. My theory is that since the law was passed in the early 1940s when the country was under British rule, insurers took a decision that was solely in their economic interests and ignored their societal duty.

• Legislators bowed to insurers’ representations. The passenger liability section of the Motor Vehicles Insurance (Third-Party-Risks) Act was never implemented. Insurance market practice has always been to limit coverage to the number of persons that the vehicle is licensed to carry and who are seated in the cab of the truck. Even though Jamaica attained political independence over 60 years ago, local lawmakers have not shown any interest in ending this discriminatory practice against rural folk, many of whom are their constituents.

Still no action

Fifteen years later, it is shameful that lawmakers have still taken no action.

The folks at the National Road Safety Council, including the prime minister, who chairs it, are focused on reducing the number of persons who are killed or injured on our roads each year. Is it too big of a stretch for them to look beyond these statistics and consider the personal stories of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of survivors of traffic accidents, like Ms Fuller and Mr Jackson, who were injured and, through no fault of their own, are ineligible for compensation under the Motor Vehicles Insurance (Third-Party Risks) Act?

I estimate that at least 10,000 persons are negatively impacted each year by motor vehicle accidents. These include individuals like Ms Fuller and Mr Jackson who are unjustly excluded from the motor vehicle insurance compensation system and others who get chicken feed for their injuries and pain and suffering because of the scandalously low limit under the motor insurance law.

Are the lawyers who sit in the House of Representatives unaware of these facts, or is it easier to cut a cheque instead of finding solutions?

Cedric E. Stephens provides independent information and advice about the management of risks and insurance. For free information or counsel, write to: or

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