A Belfast woman whose car was stolen and rammed by a PSNI patrol has hit out at the system which led to two officers claiming £15,000 from her personal insurance.
Victoria Grierson said victims are being penalised unfairly as she criticised how her family's insurance company also had to pay for damage wreaked by two burglars on her neighbours' properties.
The mother-of-two's ordeal began in November last year when she, her partner and their sons were asleep in bed when their home was burgled.
The two men responsible stole tens of thousands of pounds worth of goods – including the family's BMW X3 and a Mini One – which were both written off after being recklessly driven off by the perpetrators. The vehicles had to be rammed by a PSNI patrol to bring them to a stop.
Ms Grierson's case has highlighted how the insurance system can see the victims of crime being punished for circumstances completely outside their control.
After the burglary ordeal, she said she was stunned to receive a solicitor's letter advising her that two PSNI officers were making personal injuries claims off her car insurance at £7,500 each.
On top of the £15,000 paid out by their insurance company, a further £10,000 was also paid out to neighbours whose properties were damaged when the thieves went on the rampage in the cars.
Victoria and her partner's car insurance premiums have now rocketed by around £300 each per year – and all because of the actions of criminals while they was sleeping in their beds.
Thomas Bacon (23), of Florenceville Drive in Belfast, appeared at Downpatrick Crown Court on Tuesday charged with burglary, theft, possession of a handgun without a certificate, possession of a firearm in suspicious circumstances, aggravated vehicle taking, driving while disqualified, using a motor vehicle without insurance and failing to provide a specimen.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Victoria said she was left "confused and upset" by the payouts.
"It's been a tough year for us; the whole burglary has been a nightmare," she said.
"When I received a civil bill from a solicitor in Newtownards, giving two names care of a police station, it was saying they were claiming £7,500 each. I was totally confused and upset.
"This was two months after the burglary and we hadn't even been to court yet.
"They (the police) had rammed my car while I was sleeping in bed and I am the one penalised.
"But I do have to say the officers dealing with the case all year have been fantastic keeping us updated every step off the process and have been really supportive to our family." SDLP Justice spokesman Alban Maginness raised similar cases at the Stormont Justice committee earlier this year when two victims of car crime approached him about being sued by the PSNI.
Mr Maginness told the Belfast Telegraph the "nightmare" scenarios described by victims seem very unfair.
"There was no satisfaction from the police and the Policing Board in relation to this issue," he said.
"The police do have the legal right to sue, albeit the person they are suing is the victim.
"Whilst I understand the law it seems to me to be outrageous that a victim of crime is further victimised by police officers seeking compensation and further to that, on foot of that, have to pay additional premiums in relation to renewal of car insurance."
A PSNI spokesman told the Belfast Telegraph it does not hold any information in relation to police officers making a compensation claim against the owner of a stolen vehicle.
"Each incident would very much depend on the individual circumstances, therefore this would be a private matter between the individual officer, like any other citizen, and the insurance company involved."
When Bacon appeared in court earlier this week, he was handed down various concurrent sentences and fines for nine different charges.
The total sentence was six years, three in custody and three on licence.
A second suspect was never identified or brought to justice.
In 2010 Bacon was jailed for four years for his part in taking a stolen Volkswagen Polo on a 'joyride' from Newtownabbey to west Belfast. His driving on the wrong side of the road caused a taxi to crash.
At the time, Judge Gemma Loughran said Bacon – who has more than 60 convictions dating back to when he was just 14 – and his co-accused were fortunate not to be facing even more serious charges of death or grievous bodily injury by dangerous driving.
Nightmare that began with banging on our door at 3am
It's taken a year for Victoria Grierson to get a full night of sleep after her family home was burgled while they slept.
On November 22, 2012, the mother-of-two, her partner and their sons were in bed when, completely unknown to them, a nightmare scenario was unfolding.
Ms Grierson only became aware something was wrong when she was woken by a neighbour banging on the door.
She then discovered her house had been broken into, ransacked and burgled before the assailants made off with both family cars – a Mini and her partner's BMW.
She recalled what happened.
"Two houses were burgled before us," she said. "The police were sitting at the top of my street in an unmarked car while our house was being burgled.
"My neighbour heard loud music coming from my car when the engine was started. Then she saw two guys in our drive.
"She banged on our door at 3am and I knew straight away something awful had happened."
She was horrified by the scene she found downstairs after it was trashed.
"The two boys had been sleeping in their beds; there were dirty footprints leading to all our bedroom doors," she said.
Three watches valued at £7,000, a £400 laptop, an XBox, around 20 XBox games, a TV, and two children's motorbikes were stolen.
Victoria's Mini and her partner's BMW were both written off.
The damage didn't end there. Neighbours were left surveying gardens, gates, shrubbery and walls wrecked by the burglars as they careered away in the stolen cars.
They were only stopped when rammed by the PSNI patrol.
Victoria said: "We had to take £15,000 from our savings to put towards a new car and a security system for the house. My partner has only just got himself a new car.
"I nearly didn't get car insurance. It was hard to get and now it's jumped up for both of us. It doesn't seem fair."
The upset was compounded when she received a solicitor's letter saying that two police officers who rammed the car were claiming compensation.
Neighbours told Ms Grierson they were advised by the police to also claim from her car insurance for the damage to their properties.
Victoria says she has been left traumatised by what happened.
"It's only now I am getting back to sleep at night. I ended up getting sick after all this and I'm only just getting myself back together."
It's the system we have. Do I think it's fair? No
Insurance experts have said the industry is examining the legislation surrounding victims of car crime being penalised.
Victoria Grierson's case shows how car owners are being financially penalised as they are pursued for civil claims when police officers and other members of the public sustain injuries or their property has been damaged following the theft of a vehicle.
The owner's no-claims bonus can be affected and their car insurance premiums can rise as a result.
Steve Foulsham, head of technical services at the British Insurance Brokers' Association, said in Victoria Grierson's case the injury claim coming from the police is unlikely to have affected the new premium over above what it would have done for a theft claim.
When the Belfast Telegraph asked Mr Foulsham if he felt it was fair that consumers are being penalised for the actions of criminals he said: "No I don't.
"In an ideal world the perpetrators would be prosecuted, but if they are a man of straw, with no means, that's not going to go far."
Mr Foulsham explained there is currently a lot of discussion both in the insurance industry and in Government about this matter, as well as fraudulent activity and whiplash claims.
"Where you have criminal activity, if there is an innocent victim involved they do have access to compensation somewhere; whether that should be directly from government or an insurance policy is debatable," he said.
"I would agree it's not an ideal situation we have at the moment."
Paul Ryman is head of technical at the Motor Insurance Bureau which was established in 1946 as a central fund to provide a means of compensating the victims of road accidents by negligent uninsured and drivers who could not be traced.
He said: "Insurers, under legislation, are obliged to pay a claim from an injured or damaged third party regardless of who is making the claim.
"Section 98 of the Road Traffic Northern Ireland Order 1981 includes a requirement to have third party insurance and places a legal obligation on insurers when there is a claim arising from use of a vehicle they insure.
"Police, neighbours and other innocent victims can make a claim and insurers are obliged to deal with it. That's no comfort to your readers and I do sympathise, but that's the mechanism in place."