$300,000 for RSA killings survivor

01:48, Dec 07 2012
ONE CHAPTER CLOSES: Susan Couch, the sole survivor of the 2001 RSA killings, outside the High Court in Auckland earlier this year.
ONE CHAPTER CLOSES: Susan Couch, the sole survivor of the 2001 RSA killings, outside the High Court in Auckland earlier this year.

Susan Couch, the sole survivor of the RSA killings 11 years ago, has won a $300,000 settlement from the Corrections Department.

The announcement was made on Campbell Live last night but both Couch and her lawyer, Brian Henry, said they will fight on.

Henry said the next target would be ACC which had paid out almost nothing for Couch's injuries.

"It is just a closing of one chapter. We now need to get to the point where we can sue for compensation," he said.

Couch was nearly killed when she was beaten by William Bell in his armed robbery of the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA on December 8, 2001 in which three of her co-workers - Wayne Johnson, Mary Hobson and Bill Absolum - were shot dead. She was left partially paralysed and brain-damaged.

In 2010 she won a significant victory in the Supreme Court giving her the right to sue the department for $500,000 in exemplary damages, claiming it had negligently handled Bell on probation, allowing him to plot and carry out the fatal robbery.

She wanted that trial to be held in front of a jury. But two months ago Justice Timothy Brewer sided with the department and ruled there could be no jury.

Bell was working at the RSA under probation monitoring at the time of the killing spree, having completed two-thirds of his sentence for an earlier brutal bashing of a service station attendant.

Couch has argued there was an extreme failure of duty by the Probation Service because the probation officer in Bell's case had encouraged him to work at the RSA despite his alcohol problem and propensity for violence.

Following the announcement of the settlement, the widower of victim Mary Hobson said his family would now consider a fresh compensation claim against the Department of Corrections.

Hobson - whose wife 44-year-old wife, Mary, was the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA's cleaner - welcomed the pay-out, saying Corrections had ''mucked around'' in the way it had treated Ms Couch's case.

When asked if he would now look at legal action, he replied: ''I will consider it ... yeah.

''It would be good if they say, yes, it is my turn  ... if the lawyers will let me, I will.''

But while welcoming Couch's payment, Hobson said his friend deserved at least a $1 million pay-out.

''I am really, really happy for her,'' Hobson said.

''After all these years she has been trying ... she was the one that was really mutilated by Bell. To come through that, and now where she is, is really amazing.

''It's been 10 years ... 11 years is coming up [on Saturday since the incident].

''They have mucked around a long time with that case. It should have been a million bucks.''

Rather than a compensation bid, Ms Couch's was a rare case of a bid for exemplary damages, sometimes known as punitive damages, for the failure of the Department of Corrections to control the risk Bell posed.

Legal experts said that exemplary damages, such as those awarded to Ms Couch, were rare because the law set the
bar so high.

Auckland University law professor Bill Hodge said the law had always been there to be used by a litigant but ''it's just very hard to meet the standard''.

A precedent was set by the ''Three Clowns'' case where police were sued for damages over the 1981 beating of three anti-Springbok-tour protesters dressed as clowns.

He said that in the Couch case, Corrections had ''vicarious liability'' via its staff member.

Couch had to show that the department was more than just negligent - it had to be deliberate or reckless disregard.

The other complicating feature was that there had to be a survivor as the law said exemplary damages were only available to the living.

Estates of dead people got ACC compensation but were barred from seeking damages.

The Couch case was initially brought in the name of one of those Bell killed but Ms Couch, as the survivor, had to see it through.

Hodge said this stipulation ruled out many cases that could seem similar, like the 1997 murder of Karl Kuchenbecker by parolee Graeme Burton or the police motorway shooting of bystander Halatau Naitoko
In those cases the affected person did not survive.

Hodge said Couch's case was, strength-wise, ''a 9-1/2 out of 10''.

''This is one of the worst criminals in New Zealand and they gave him to a junior person who may have been scared of him and refused to meet him.''

Hodge said he was disappointed when the courts ruled Couch's case would be held before a judge alone rather than by a jury, because it was too complex.

He said juries decided much more complex cases and it deserved to be heard by a jury of Ms Couch's peers.

Bell was initially jailed for a minimum non-parole period of 33 years but that was reduced by three years on appeal.

He is not eligible for parole until August 2032.

His co-offender Darnell Kere Tupe was sentenced to 12 years for manslaughter and concurrent terms for aggravated robbery. Tupe was granted parole earlier this year.