Conference Issue 2016


Querulous complainants 'a struggle'

By Kate Tilley, Resolve Editor

Insurers dealing with querulous complainants need to accept they will always be "a struggle", forensic psychologist Dr Grant Lester, from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health, told the NZILA conference.

But he advised insurers not to invest effort to "stall the inevitable" of those complainants taking them to court. They "want their day in court" and were usually voluntarily self-represented.

Insurers needed to recognise the symptoms of people "verging on the abnormal".

A normal complainant was able to negotiate and accept a reasonable settlement.

A vexatious complainant would institute proceedings habitually and persistently, without reasonable grounds.

An unreasonable complainant was demanding and persistent.

But querulous complainants lost focus and proportionality and became "relentless in the pursuit of justice". They could devastate their own and others’ lives. They were taking "the first few steps on a voyage to madness".

The initial grievance may be proper, but became hidden under new grievances. Victimisation and paranoia crept into their conversations. Generalised victimisation was ok. "Don’t we all sometimes feel the world is against us? But if it gets focused, they blame you - you are the only obstacle to the success of their claim."

He warned querulous complainants were unlikely to "stab you" but could do psychological harm to case handlers. "If you personalise the relationship you become their agent; their support. When you say no, you go from saviour to persecutor."

Querulous complainants were generally middle-aged males who sent pseudo-legal correspondence and, eventually, made self-harm or other threats. Their lives become driven by their complaint. They were "could-a-been champions, held back from their destiny by people like you".

They wanted vindication and acknowledgement their life had been blighted. They had trouble accepting their mortality and a sense of loss of power. Life events often contributed, for example, marital breakups, career setbacks or health issues.

Dr Lester warned against over-servicing querulous complainants. "Don’t review their case just because they are unhappy." He advised claims handlers to record fact, not opinion.

"Don’t ignore threats; respond by stopping management of the complaint. Deal with the behaviour," Dr Lester said.

"They are like a tornado, you cannot stop them. Let them go to court."

Dr Lester outlined several other "styles" of complainants.

• Obsessional complainants "just think you are inept". They need to be dealt with in a specific way, by telling them exactly how you plan to manage their complaint.

• Narcissistic complainants "think the world revolves around them" and will try to bend the rules, but Dr Lester warned never to bend the rules and to show a "tough skin" if they were rude. "It’s not personal; they’re always rude."

• Paranoid and chronic grumblers were "neighbours from hell"; always trying to make you feel a failure. "If someone is nice, they think there’s an ulterior motive. Just accept it, be professional. Don’t make jokes; they have no sense of humour."

• Some complainants were "just mad, perhaps schizophrenic". "But don’t tell them they are mad. Don’t argue or conspire with them," he said.

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Resolve is the official publication of the Australian Insurance Law Association and
the New Zealand Insurance Law Association.