From 2012 to the first half of 2017, local authorities received over 29,000 compensation claims, according to data collated by RTÉ Investigates.

According to the local authority insurer, IPB Insurance, those claims had a wide variety of causes. In addition to claims for trips-and-falls on footpaths and damage caused by potholes, there were also claims for "spatial awareness," "adverse weather," "reversing" and "theft."

Approximately 65% of those claims are classified as public liability. As well as being in charge of public amenities – and sometimes liable where an accident occurs in a public place – councils are also in charge of the common areas of council housing. They can also be liable when an accident occurs in local authority accommodation.

During the period we examined,  from 2012 to June 2017, at least €387m was spent on behalf of local authorities settling claims. That figure includes awards and compensation, as well as legal fees.

Around three-quarters of those costs relate to public liability, with the remainder made up of property damage claims, workplace accidents, and motor liability. 

But the true cost of claims culture on local authorities is much greater. That's because the figure of €387m doesn't take into account the labour costs associated with council staff responding to claims.

20% increase in claims from 2012 to 2016

In general, local authorities have seen an increase in the number of claims received in recent years. In 2012, they received in excess of 4,500 new claims, which increased by over 20% in 2016, to 5,500 new claims.

That means that the costs incurred by local authorities handling claims will also likely increase in the next few years, as claims mature over time before concluding – a process that can sometimes take years.

Dublin tops the league table

To make valid comparisons council-to-council, we calculated rates per 100,000 people for both the number of claims received by each local authority from 2012 to June 2017 and, separately, the costs of claims incurred, for the same period.

This shows vast variations council-to-council, with Dublin City Council receiving over 1,000 claims per 100,000 people during this period.

After Dublin City Council, the next highest councils in terms of claims received were Limerick City and County Council (923) and Waterford City and County Council (821). Longford County Council was fourth highest, on 780 claims per 100,000 people, with Cork City Council in fifth, on 774.

The councils in Kilkenny, Donegal, Meath, Laois, Leitrim and Cavan were in the bottom end of the table, in terms of frequency of claims, receiving less than 400 claims per 100,000 people.

The per capita costs of claims were proportionally highest at Louth County Council, where some €16.2m was spent on claims, followed by Longford County Council (€15.8m), and then Cork City Council, on €14.3m. Dublin City Council was in fourth place on €13.9m.

The county councils in Galway, Offaly, Kilkenny, Laois, Fingal and South Dublin, were in the lowest part of this metric, with their claims costs coming in at under €5m.

Analysis

While there is some correlation between counties that have higher Personal Injuries Assessment Board (PIAB) awards, and local authorities that experience a proportionally higher frequency of claims, there are exceptions to this relationship.

A possible explanation for those divergences is that while local authorities tend to deal mostly with public liability claims, the Injuries Board, on the other hand, sees far more motor liability claims.

Meath is one such example. For 2007-16, it was the sixth highest recipient of PIAB awards by population, and yet Meath County Council is well down the list in terms of its council's claims frequency. This could be explained by the fact that Meath is a commuter county and has a higher volume of traffic, making it particularly prone to motor liability claims.

However, there are other examples of counties that have both disproportionally high number of PIAB awards and receive higher levels of local authority claims. 

Louth, for instance, received a very high number of awards at the Injuries Board. Similarly, the county’s local authority is one of the most frequently sued councils in the country, per capita.

"Outside of the main cities, Louth is one of the most urbanised counties in the country," a council spokesperson said.

"As such, our population is concentrated in two main areas, Dundalk and Drogheda. Where we get very high footfall, there tends to be a higher frequency of claims per capita, compared to where there is a wider spread of footfall."

"The council is seen as an easy mark"

While councils with high claims tend to be urbanised – such as Cork City Council and Dublin City Council – Longford County Council is a notable exception. A relatively rural local authority, this council also experiences a very high frequency of claims, while County Longford receives a disproportionally high number of awards at the Injuries Boards, second only to Limerick in per capita terms.

Longford County Councillor Seamus Butler, of Fianna Fáil, said that he was not surprised.

"There has been a long history of claims in Longford," he said, which has some "very accident-prone families. Unfortunately, the council is seen as an easy mark."

Councils can be sued for any number of reasons.

Click here to find out about some of the more unusual of these and see what local authority has the most treacherous footpaths in the country.

To learn about how we gathered and collated the data referred to in the article, click here.