4 Sep 2019

Christchurch couple misled by Southern Response speak out

From Checkpoint, 5:10 pm on 4 September 2019

A couple who defeated the government's quake insurer in the High Court say its deceptive actions were nefarious and they want an apology and inquiry. 

In 2012 Southern Response gave Karl and Alison Dodds a Detailed Repair/Rebuild Analysis or DRA -  a quote for rebuilding their Huntsbury home - but it included an edited version of the cost of a rebuild.

It kept secret from the Dodds the real estimate, which was hundreds of thousands of dollars more. 

The court found last month that Southern Response had engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct when it deliberately withheld information that left the Dodds thousands of dollars out of pocket. It ordered the insurer to pay up. 

The ruling was precedent setting, and means thousands of settled cases could potentially be reopened.

It has left experts wondering whether Southern Response will be able to close up shop by the end of the year as planned.  The organisation was created by the government to settle quake claims when insurer AMI failed in 2011.

Alison told Checkpoint's Lisa Owen that Southern Response's actions were "nefarious". 

"Come on Southern Response fess up, face up. You've got it wrong. Just do the right thing by people and get their lives back on track. Get Christchurch back on track," she said.

"How could you treat us like that? What have we ever done to deserve to be treated like that? ... We just want to get on with our lives. This is eight-and-a-half years. We just want someone to acknowledge that they've got it wrong.

"I'm sorry, the rest of the country, I'm sure you're sick of us whinging, but it's still very real for us. Very, very real. We're still living it."

Karl said they would never forgive Southern Response. 

"We're just ordinary New Zealanders who have worked all our lives to put together and make a lovely home for our retirement and that has been taken from us. And we feel aggrieved, betrayed and deeply saddened by the fact that a government company, whose clear brief from the honourable Gerry Brownlee was to act in a very fair and transparent and open manner, has for whatever reason made the decision to do the opposite. 

"And for that, we will never forgive them."

Alison and Karl Dodds talk to Lisa Owen about their ordeal with Southern Response.

Alison and Karl Dodds talk to Lisa Owen about their ordeal with Southern Response. Photo: RNZ

'We feel we've got to see it through'

Alison said having to go through an appeal process would crush them, but they would go through it if they had to. 

"I'd be crushed, to be quite honest. I don't know if I could cope with it. We feel we've got to see it through, we've come so far and Justice Gendall and our lovely lawyers, they've done such a good job ... we just feel for other people that are in our situation." 

Karl said they wanted an independent, meticulous and far-reaching inquiry into the operation and behaviour of Southern Response. 

"Into why and how a Crown company with Treasury observers present and monitoring that company failed to pick up that the company was acting badly the company had gone rogue."

They also wanted another investigation into how the whole ordeal could have come about in the first place. 

"We were AMI customers, policyholders," Karl said. "AMI is a mutual insurer. Who owns the company. We own the company. How is it possible for our policies to be transferred to a government corporation ... without our approval? Something has gone wrong with AMI, as well."

He said between them they had worked for the government for 60 years, and they had initially trusted the company, the government and Arrow International, a now-liquidated construction company that was working on the rebuilding in Christchurch. 

"We put absolute trust in this government agency and trust in their bedfellows Arrow International, who we thought was an international company of repute. We just assumed that this was all going to be above board," he said.

But their friends were shocked they had accepted the low offer for the price of the rebuild, and Alison made an Official Information Act request. 

"I was so shocked," she said, of first reading the documents. "I said, 'we've been duped here, we've been done'. And honestly, I, just my heart sank."

Southern Response office

Photo: RNZ

'For someone to say sorry would mean so much'

Karl said Southern Response had never approached them to explain or apologise, and it had been very hard on them.

"We did not articulate this at all well in the trial, it's really hard to put into words what subtle effects living a nightmare actually does to you."

"If we could have added up the lost sleep and the lost hours sitting up in bed at night with a laptop, researching this ... writing letters, writing submissions, it must be ... thousands ... and what has been a even more frustrating and distressful over the last few months is the stuff that's coming out of the woodwork that we didn't even know about."

"For example, as stated in the opening address by Southern responses lawyers. That Southern response were acting with the intention of minimising costs."

Alison said the difficulty of the trial made them feel like criminals. 

"I've never sat in a witness box [before], nor would I ever want to again. As I say, I cried the whole way through it. Shocking, absolutely shocking. I felt when being examined by the opposition ... that I was being treated like a criminal.

"I can honestly understand why other people haven't taken their cases any further. I mean, it's cost us so much money and it's cost us so much stress." 

She said she wanted an apology from Southern Response, but it had never come. 

"For someone to say sorry would mean so much but so far, we've seen nothing like that from Southern Response. I just feel like we're just one of a number and it really doesn't matter."

Karl said Southern Response had no reputation left, and they needed to do something to put it right. 

"It would be prudent to simply wave the white flag and say 'look, guys, we've been caught, we're sorry. Done and dusted. Put it all right'," he said. 

"There's countless numbers of other people hurting out there and we're doing this for them as well, and let's all move forward, rebuild our lives. Let's rebuild Christchurch." 

Read more: Southern Response boss silent as calls for inquiry grow