Twenty-one year old Will Ingram has won a landmark discrimination case against insurance giant QBE, in what is a strong wake-up call for the industry to comply with the law and keep up with community expectations about how people with a mental illness should be treated.
The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal found that QBE (Australia) Ltd directly discriminated against Will by providing him with a travel insurance policy that had a blanket exclusion for claims relating to all mental illnesses, and relying on this clause to reject his claim to reimburse travel expenses of $4,292.48.
Will's case, run by Victoria Legal Aid, is an Australian-first test of discrimination by insurers on the basis of a mental illness. Will had no pre-existing illness when he was diagnosed with major depression in February 2012. On medical advice he had to cancel an overseas school trip he had booked in late 2011.
Equality Law Program Manager Melanie Schleiger said the case showed that QBE had breached the law and that its attitudes and practices had not kept up with community values and expectations about how people with a mental illness should be treated.
‘We know so much more about mental illnesses today, so insurers shouldn’t be relying on outdated and stereotyped attitudes and misconceptions. If some insurers can provide this cover, it’s time for QBE and others to eliminate discriminatory practices, as they have with other medical conditions.’Melaine Schleiger
‘QBE clearly failed to meet its obligations under discrimination laws. There was no evidence that it considered any statistics, actuarial data or expert medical information about the risks presented by different types of mental illnesses when it created this travel insurance policy and decided to exclude all claims made because of a mental illness.’
Ms Schleiger said the decision sends a strong message to the insurance industry.
‘Will's win confirms that compliance with discrimination laws is not optional and that insurers need to base their decisions on evidence, not stereotypes and assumptions, when they reject a claim or cover because of a mental illness.’
The tribunal found that QBE’s exclusion of all claims made because of a mental illness, regardless of the type, severity or circumstances of the illness, was not reasonable. It also rejected QBE’s claim that it would suffer an unjustifiable hardship if it removed the general exclusion clause from the travel insurance policy.
Will spoke of a feeling of hope: ‘I really want this to pave the way for others living with a mental illness to stand up for their rights, and insurers to not treat us like second class citizens. I thought their treatment of me might be what I would experience for the rest of my life.’
Call for changes to discrimination laws
On the back of this win Victoria Legal Aid, beyondblue, Mental Health Australia and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre are calling on the government to change discrimination laws so that:
- there is stronger protection for consumers
- the data and information insurers rely on when excluding or rejecting claims based on a mental illness are made available to consumers
- detailed reasons for any denial of cover are provided
- insurers must report annually on how often and on what basis they discriminate because of a mental illness
- insurers comply with updated Insurance Industry Anti-Discrimination Guidelines, which could be developed by the Australian Human Rights Commission
- the ‘other relevant factors’ insurers can consider in declining insurance are specified.
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Reviewed 02 November 2022