17 Jan 2020

Southern Response claimants furious with boss Casey Hurren's offer of apology

7:22 pm on 17 January 2020

Too little, too late.

That's how many at the centre of issues with Southern Response have characterised the state insurer's offer of an apology.

Casey Hurren, the general manager of Southern Response.

Casey Hurren, the general manager of Southern Response. Photo: RNZ / Anneke Smith

Southern Response's new boss, Casey Hurren, offered the public apology while speaking to RNZ today. He said by-and-large the insurer had got it right, settling 48,000 claims with only about 200 left.

Those are claims arising from the Canterbury earthquakes almost a decade ago.

Southern Response was set up by the National government after insurer AMI, which held the majority of home insurance policies in Christchurch at the time, collapsed following the earthquakes.

When asked if he would publicly apologise to those who were unhappy with their treatment by Southern Response, Hurren said: "For anybody that wasn't treated well during the course of their time and their claim settlement with Southern Response, I'd absolutely apologise for that".

But he put the problems down to poor communication.

"I think that when people are communicated with, sometimes we don't communicate as well as we could and what that means is that ... people feel like they are being treated unfairly."

He said that was problematic when both parties were in dispute over the amount of damage, the scope of work, and the cost.

"So when you have those three elements and you have disagreements and disputes ... what you find is that some homeowners where we have communicated in a strong way about what we believe the damage, scope or cost is, have not been happy about that and they have gone to media ... and wanted to tell their story, and I get that.

"I think [we communicated effectively] for a lot of claims, but for a minority of them we didn't get it right," he said.

Apology not enough

Insurance advocate, Ali Jones - a former Christchurch city councillor and a claimant herself - said the proposition that was the only problem was laughable.

"Too little, too late. If wasn't so terribly sad and I didn't almost feel like I wanted to cry, I'd be rolling around the floor and laughing," she said.

After all this time the apology did not go anywhere near far enough, she said.

Insurance advocate Ali Jones

Ali Jones. Photo: RNZ

"I would have liked to have heard him say they are putting their hand up and are acknowledging that they have handled, managed, assessed thousands and thousands of claims in Canterbury in a woefully deficient way. They are doing better, they will be doing better and we will be relying on EQC to help guide us with this.

"You're never going to hear that, however much you'd like to. But that is what Southern Response needed to do not only now, but needed to do four, five, six years ago."

The insurer wrapped up at the end of last year with its remaining 200 claims being transferred to EQC.

Hurren stayed on to deal with the 30 cases before the High Court, as well as a Court of Appeal matter and an ongoing class action.

The lawyer behind that class action, Grant Cameron, said the apology was "entirely appropriate", but it was time to follow up with action and provide fair and reasonable settlement to the 3000 claimants involved in the suit.

"People are going to necessarily question the validity and value of the apology where it seems plain that the Government does want to continue arguing about technical legal issues and what's its intention in doing that.

"I think a lot of our clients feel that it still wants to minimise the overall payments and it's perhaps not being absolutely genuine in trying to confront these issues."

'Very, very angry'

One of the claimants involved in the case, Christchurch couple Mark Gilmour and Althea Kallas, said the insurer had short-changed them by about $200,000.

The High Court ruled in August last year that a Southern Response practice of writing up two separate costings for home repairs - and only offering the customer the cheaper one - was deceptive and misleading.

Gilmour said the apology left him fuming.

"This response is too little, too late. We spent the best part of three years arguing with these people. Southern Response told us lie after lie. We just cannot get any satisfaction whatsoever, so when we hear this belated apology of sorts it really makes us very, very angry," he said.

But Dean Lester, who acts as an earthquake insurance claim preparer in Christchurch, said while the apology had come far too late, he hoped it showed Southern Response was trying to take a different approach.

"I thought it was very clear that Casey was trying to take a different direction than Southern Response have taken in recent months. The apology is welcomed but a lot of people have been hurt, and many have been frustrated and indeed have been quite damaged by Southern Response in the past."

Lester said Hurren needed to follow up the apology with full and appropriate settlement of outstanding claims.

The class action is next before the court in March.

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