Sole RSA survivor wins $300,000 settlement

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 06:41 07/12/2012
ONE CHAPTER CLOSES: Susan Couch, the sole survivor of the 2001 RSA killings, outside the High Court in Auckland earlier this year.
GRAHAME COX/Fairfax NZ
ONE CHAPTER CLOSES: Susan Couch, the sole survivor of the 2001 RSA killings, outside the High Court in Auckland earlier this year.

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

Ms Couch was nearly killed when she was beaten by William Bell during an armed robbery of the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA 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.

She sought to sue the department for $500,000 in punitive damages, claiming it had negligently handled Bell's probation, allowing him to plot and carry out the fatal robbery.

Almost 11 years later to the day, she has won a settlement, but her lawyer Brian Henry said last night the battle was far from over.

"This is just the beginning of the journey," he said.

Ms Couch will now push for ACC compensation, which was never provided because she was working only part-time when she was attacked.

She has instead relied on benefit payments for more than a decade.

But that battle could be significantly harder, requiring law changes to free ACC from strict requirements to consider income when paying compensation.

"She was absolutely done over by the system," Mr Henry said. "This is something that needs legislative change. It is a Government-level thing."

Corrections chief executive Ray Smith said the payment was about doing the right thing by Ms Couch.

Too much public money had been spent on lawyers, which could be used elsewhere, he said.

"I believed taxpayers' money could be better spent, which is why I pursued this matter directly with Susan and her lawyer."

However, the settlement is $200,000 short of what Ms Couch was seeking and comes with no admission of wrongdoing by the department.

Mr Henry said that, although the sum seemed like a lot of money, it paled in comparison to what the attack has cost Ms Couch. "Over 30 years, that's $10,000 a year. That is less than the dole."

Speaking on Campbell Live last night, Ms Couch acknowledged the settlement was the closest to an apology she would ever receive.

"It's not a formal apology, it's a 'Whoops, sorry, our bad' . . . I'll take it."

The seven-year legal battle had left her exhausted, she said.

Bell had been working at the RSA under Probation Service 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.

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

The settlement may clear the way for other cases, with the widower of Mary Hobson saying the family would now consider a fresh compensation claim against Corrections.

Tai Hobson, whose 44-year-old wife was the cleaner at the RSA, said Ms Couch had been "mucked around" by Corrections.

Asked if he would now look at legal action, he replied: "I will consider it . . . if the lawyers will let me, I will."

Mr Hobson said his friend deserved at least a $1 million payout.

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.

- The Dominion Post

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