‘Human cost behind every claim’: Insurance costs ‘wrecked’ Segway business

‘Even if people fall because they are going too fast, some will try to apportion blame’

PR image from Woodland Segways in Lough Key Forest Park.  Photograph:  Taken from  website with permission of Colm Berry

PR image from Woodland Segways in Lough Key Forest Park. Photograph: Taken from website with permission of Colm Berry

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Colm Berry says insurance costs “wrecked” his business after his premium rose 25-fold in just five years.

The Dubliner set up Woodlands Segways in 2014, bringing 10 battery-powered, two-wheeled “personal transporters” to Lough Key Forest Park in Co Roscommon.

Insurance cost him €1,200 in his first year in business. By 2019 he got a quote of €30,000, which, with an annual turnover of about €60,000, wasn’t feasible. “Today you just couldn’t get insurance,” he says.

The Segways, which travel at about the speed of a bicycle, quickly become a key attraction in the park where zip wires and a tree-top walk make it a popular family holiday destination.

But when a woman walked into Berry’s office in August 2015 and complained she had been knocked to the ground after being hit by a Segway, he knew he was in trouble.

The Segway guided tours were along trails shared with pedestrians and cyclists and one Segway user had swerved to avoid someone, before skidding on wet ground and colliding with the woman.

Berry agrees the woman had a grievance but was “shocked” when two years later she was awarded €25,000 by the Personal Injuries Assessment Board (PIAB) for what he says was “soft tissue damage”.

He had always insisted two staff accompany clients on the tours, one in front and one at the back, and recalls when the woman complained, “I told her it could wipe me out.

“I have no problem with her. She was out in the park minding her own business when this happened. It is the level of awards I have a problem with,” he says.

While Segways were new to people in 2014, he quickly built up a clientele and excellent reviews on Tripadvisor, but says the accident “threw a spanner in the works”.

He was “petrified” there might be another accident so he stopped taking corporate bookings for team-building exercises. He also lived in fear of the next insurance quote. The year after the accident his premium rose to €3,500 “which was actually a relief” but there were substantial increases in the following years, to €5,000, then €10,000 “and then it went bananas”. At the end of 2019 the quote was €30,000 so he shut up shop.

“Insurance is just a killer,” he said. “Every year there was stress, wondering if we would get insured.

“I don’t think people realise there’s a human cost behind every claim. In this case absolutely it was our fault but even if people fall because they are going too fast, some will try to apportion blame.”

He is disappointed that after making a substantial financial investment and taking a risk, the insurance situation “wrecked” his business.

He estimates the total set-up costs were in the region of €100,000. “You try to do something entrepreneurial and get something going in rural Ireland and it comes back to bite you,” he said.

The 47-year-old biochemist by profession has secured a temporary job testing water samples. “So now I’m in a job earning what I first earned when I came out of college.”

Dramatic reform

Unless there is dramatic reform he would be reluctant to recommend anyone to start an outdoor activity business. “In fact, I’d say don’t touch it with a barge pole.”

Among the factors he believes need addressing are the size of the awards, and the culture of a lack of personal responsibility. “And I think the legal profession are driving it too,” he says. With so many insurers exiting the market, he does not think they are “making a killing”.

He still owns a fleet of 10 Segways worth €6,000 each but he doesn’t anticipate anyone buying the Segways because of the problem getting insurance.

His company website is still live but is advising clients that it is closed down for 2021. The messages doesn’t sound hopeful: “We will try to secure insurance for next year but due to the claims culture, large compensation payouts and lack of real insurance and legal reform at the moment, we are not hopeful for the future,” it notes.

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