Racism, sexism claims after crash

STEVE HOPKINS
Last updated 11:34 30/11/2012

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A minor accident on the Harbour Bridge which resulted in claims of racism and sexism and a complaint seeking $100,000 in damages has cost a contruction firm more than $20,000 in legal bills.

In March last year, Jennifer Sionepulu was in the middle lane of the Harbour Bridge when she claims a truck owned by Downer NZ ''side-swiped'' her car after it switched lanes to avoid a vehicle that had broken down.

The truck didn't stop after the accident.

Police looked into the incident but due to ''conflicting accounts'' no charges were laid.

In June Sinoepulu's husband, representing himself as a ''human rights'' advocate, sent a text message to Downer seeking $7000. 

The same day he sent another message to the company claiming discrimination under the Human Rights Act on the grounds of ''sex-gender and ethnicity - nationality/citizenship as a Pacific Islander''. 

The damages claim increased more than 10-fold the following month when Sinoepulu's husband sent a complaint to the Human Rights Commission claiming indirect discrimination and $100,000.

He claimed senior constable Douglas Johnston treated his wife differently because he didn't check the Downer truck for damage and that Downer had provided false information to police leading to their inquiry being closed.

''Downer had impliedly alleged that Ms Sionepulu had caused the damage to her own vehicle and had ignored the emotional terror of a near death experience for both the plaintiff and unborn baby as well as the humiliation of the insinuation that Ms Sionepulu was attempting an insurance fraud,'' he said.

Sionepulu told the Human Rights Review Tribunal she was ''deeply offended, injured and humiliated'' by Downer's denial of events.

She said the impression she got was that she was a woman and Downer was a ''man's company'' so she should ''get over it''. 

Sionepulu said the road rules applied to everyone equally and were ''designed to keep pregnant females safe from reckless truck and trailer drivers who think they own the road''. 

Her husband went on to claim the investigation into the accident had been controlled by Downer NZ because both the company and the police officer who looked into the matter were based in Mt Wellington, ''in the result they had produced an outcome which looked legitimate on paper but which actually amounted to indirect discrimination''.

He asked the tribunal to send a ''clear message'' to Downer and to police ''to pull their socks up''.

Speaking before the tribunal, Sionepulu accepted Downer hadn't discriminated against her and there was no evidence the investigating officer had treated her differently.

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The complaint was later dismissed.

In proceedings that concluded earlier this month, Downer sought less than one third - $6750 - of their $20,025 legal fees from Sionepulu and police sought $3750.   

The tribunal heard Sionepulu's partner had been ''aggressive, rude and threatening'' throughout proceedings - at one point he called witnesses f****** liars and rolled up his sleeves to show his tattoos before calling out ''black power''.

Downer said awarding costs would ''act as a deterrent to wholly unmeritorious claimants''. 

Sionepulu's husband told the tribunal he and his wife had decided not to ''participate in the discriminatory palangi justice system'' and would instead appeal to Maori and Pacific Island media and selected members of parliament. 

''The consequences of this decision is that we will be dispossessed and made bankrupt. Why? Because the collision on the Auckland Harbour Bridge exposed a cosy little relationship of misfeasance between the Mt Wellington defendants,'' he said. 

The tribunal, in a decision released yesterday, said any costs would have to be met by Sionepulu, who was passive to the proceedings championed by her husband who had ''taken advantage of the traffic accident to mount litigation''.

The tribunal said it wouldn't be fair or reasonable to punish Sionepulu over her husband's conduct.

- Auckland Now

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