$10,000 payout over AMI's 'failures'

KIRSTY JOHNSTON
Last updated 05:00 17/04/2012
AMI std
Kirk Hargreaves
WARNING: The Human Rights Review Tribunal told AMI it needed to undertake a thorough review of its privacy processes.

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Insurer AMI has to pay $10,000 in damages to an Auckland couple after a lengthy privacy battle in which it made "multiple, sustained and systemic failures".

The Human Rights Review Tribunal also warned the company - which dumped the couple from its books when they complained - that it needed to undertake a thorough review of its privacy processes.

"It is a matter of some concern that the largest wholly New Zealand owned fire and general insurance company has failed in significant respects to comply with its responsibilities under the Privacy Act," the tribunal decision said.

Following a hearing in February, the tribunal found James Lochead-MacMillan and his wife Sarah had been caused serious "injury of feelings" during their dealings with AMI following a fire at their Waiuku home in 2010.

During the claims process, the couple had repeatedly requested copies of audio interviews recorded for AMI, transcripts of those interviews and a report by consultants VFR into the fire.

The Lochead-MacMillan's said they wanted the information because they had been told there were "serious areas of concern" about their claim, and wanted to be sure the information provided to AMI was correct before accepting a payout.

The tribunal found several of the requests were either refused or completely ignored, while others were only responded to in part or after significant delays.

The audio files were never provided, because AMI "surprisingly" destroyed them.

During the claims period, the Lochead-MacMillan's were not told by AMI of their rights under the Privacy Act. They eventually accepted a $64,525 offer with reluctance, and without the information they were later found to be entitled to.

While AMI argued the interference with the couple's privacy was at the lower end of the scale, the tribunal did not agree, saying the Lochead-MacMillan's response was logical in a highly stressful situation.

"The withholding of the report meant that they had to deal with AMI across an information barrier. For all they knew the VFR report might contain a suggestion that they had acted improperly or were artificially inflating their claim," the decision said.

It said the impression given to the couple by AMI was that they were being kept in the dark about the information collected about them, and that AMI held all the power in the "unequal relationship".

Further to the privacy problems, the tribunal said the fact AMI decided "in view of the continued litigation" by the couple, to discontinue insurance cover was a "remarkable, if not astonishing outcome".

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However, the tribunal did not make a ruling on the point.

It awarded $10,000 for two breaches of the Privacy Act, for refusing to provide information and failing to respond to requests.

Sarah Lochead-MacMillan said the decision was extremely surprising.

"It wasn't really a monetary issue. We were just trying to make a point that they can't walk all over people all the time," she said.

She said while making the claim, they felt like AMI was subtly accusing them of something, which prompted the repeated information requests.

"It took over a year. And the process was quite intimidating. But if you do have the tenacity you can become quite successful," she said.

"If you believe in yourself and what you're doing then you can prove these great big companies can't just steamroll over you."

AMI did not respond to a request for comment.

- Auckland Now

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