Couple sued by neighbour for £20,000
A hard-up couple from Prestwich, Manchester, are being forced to sell their home after a neighbour hired no-win, no-fee lawyers to win £20,000 in damages from them over a ''minor'' accident outside their former council house.Victim care worker Foroozan Panahandeh, 45, claimed she was floored by a two foot length of plastic guttering which fell three feet onto her as she put out her bins.
She then took out a negligence claim against next door neighbours Brendan Hodgkiss and his partner Cynthia Parker, both 52, who had bought their local authority property in Prestwich, Manchester under the right to buy scheme - four months after the incident.
In a misspelt letter to Mr Hodgkiss, solicitors for Essex-based Holmes and Hills said: ''It is alleged that the accident was caused my (sic) the negligence of yourself, your servants or agents. My client suffered an injury to her neck, left shoulder and knee.''
In a series of medical reports Mrs Panahandeh, an Iranian married mother of two who arrived in the UK in 1992 to complete a chemistry Masters degree then told how she suffered ''moderate to severe'' pain over three years after the incident.
She said the injury meant she had problems working on a computer, was unable to go jogging or play volleyball again and had even been forced to abandon her weekly hobby of knitting.
She said she was unable to apply makeup or wash her hair a week after the accident and claimed she found it ''too much trouble'' washing in the shower.
Mrs Panahandeh initially sued Mr Hodgkiss, Mrs Parker and also Salford City Council which owned the property at the time of the incident claiming negligence and ''breach of statutory duty.
The civil action was discontinued against the local authority for undisclosed reasons in May 2010 at Salford County Court but a judge later ordered the couple to pay damages and costs totalling £20,254.81 plus interest.
It is believed Mrs Panahandeh's share of the legal payout will be no more than £3,000 under the terms of claim form submitted earlier to the court. The lawyers are thought to have pocketed up to £13,000 and the rest has gone in court costs.
Earlier this month Mrs Parker, a care worker and Mr Hodgkiss a roofer, who offered to pay the money at £50 a month got a warning letter from Jason Brady principal partner and head of the personal injury team at Holmes and Hills saying the matter would be referred to their civil litigation department unless the legal bill is paid.
A breakdown of the lawyer's bill shows the firm which charged £220 an hour spent over 11 hours writing 112 letters and made 49 phone calls over a five hour period and reveals details of another 21 hours he spent on issues ''other than correspondence.''
The letter said: ''You have recently repeated an offer to discharge the Judgement and Orders for Costs at the rate of £50 per month although of course this would take some 34 years for the entire sum to be discharged.
''Clearly this arrangement is unacceptable and is not agreed by the Claimant. If further action is necessitated our client will look to you for the additional costs of taking such action.''
Mrs Parker said: "I just cannot believe that a two foot piece of plastic hitting this woman from just three feet above has cost so much money and leaves us on the verge of having to sell our house.
''We were told we would have to pay this money at the rate of £500 a month within three years or her lawyers were going to take it back to court for sale of the property.
''Brendan doesn't get a regular wage, and mine just about covers the mortgage. He's gone down from about 11.5 stone to 8.5 stone through the stress.
"It's been over our heads now for six years and it's making us very ill. I'm so stressed and I am now coming to work to escape the pressure and stress of home. We don't know what to do about paying back this cash.
''I simply just haven't got that kind of money they want from me and it's inevitable we'll have to sell our house pay it off."
Mrs Parker and Mr Hodgkiss, both 52, who have a daughter aged 17 had orginally begun renting their council property in May 1990. Mrs Panahandeh bought her house next door in 2004 and initially they got on well.
Mrs Parker said: "I went round and knocked on and asked her whether she needed any help. We gave her some bedding and curtains because she didn't seem to have anything at all.
"She was quite friendly and very nice. Our kids used to play out the front garden. People are very close in our community and this was no different."
But problems began when a gate to a shared passageway separating their terraced homes fell down and Mrs Panahandeh urged her neighbours to fix it.
Then in November 14 2005 Mrs Panahandeh claimed she was hit by the falling guttering whilst walking along the passageway after putting out her bins.
In a statement said: ''I was hit on the head by a large object that fell from the storage shelving about this passageway. As I was hit on the head I fell to the ground.
''I fell onto my right knee and onto my right hand. I suffered from immedate pain in my neck and shoulder and in my right hand and I was also suffering from a headache. The main problems that I have are with my neck and right shoulder area and I have suffered from stiffness and pain in this area for sometime.''
Mr Hodgkis and Mrs Parker said they were unaware of the incident until after they bought their property under the council house right to buy scheme in March 2006 for £38,900.
They got their first letter the following October from a different legal firm acting for Mrs Panahandeh before the matter was taken up by Holmes and Hills in July 2008.
Mrs Parker added: "We had absoutely no idea about this incident at the time and had we known I'm sure could have sorted it out without the need for lawyers to be brought in. The first we knew about it was when we got a legal letter.
''In the ginnell there are two ledges on the top. Things have been stored there from before we even moved there.
''At the time of the accident the house was owned by the council and we didn't have house insurance because we didn't think we would need it at the time. We just had contents insurance.
"We got in touch with the solicitor and told them the plastic didn't belong to us and inisting the property was owned by the council. We couldn't afford a solicitor of our own at that time and we assumed it would all go away but then we kept getting more letters from a different firm.
''We kept saying the house was owned by the council at the time and it wasn't our problem but we got confused about court dates.
''Unfortunately Brendan didn't turn up for the hearing because he didn't realise when it was taking place. The next thing we knew was we were getting letters saying the judge had ruled we were at fault and that we had to pay up.
''We eventually went to see a solicitor of our own but he said he would want £5,000 in legal costs to pay him and said all we could expect was a reduction in the damages payout.
''We tried to appeal by going it alone with the papework but her lawyers ran rings round us in court quoting all sorts of case law and we stood no chance. What adds insult to injury that the solicitors got so much money from it.
''There are people out there who have been the victim of serious accidents who get less than she has. There's no justice in this world.
"People like me are struggling and can't pay to get the legal help but the people making the claims get everything given to them because the solicitors know they will get thousands out of the claim. ''
Mrs Panahandeh has since moved out of her property and was unavailable for comment.