Christchurch quake rescuer Bill Toomey wins fight for ACC cover for post-traumatic stress

CECILE MEIER
Last updated 14:27 01/05/2017
ALDEN WILLIAMS/Stuff.co.nz

Bill Toomey, speaking at the site of Christchurch's PGC building, speaks about his experience there immediately after the February 2011 earthquake.

Bill Toomey described the post-quake scene at the PGC building in February 2011 as "horrific".
ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ
Builder Bill Toomey drilled through a concrete floor of a collapsed building after the February 2011 earthquake. The "horrific" scene he saw traumatised him.
ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ
The Christchurch builder has won his landmark case against ACC to cover the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered after pulling people from the PGC Building.
MATTY LOVELL
Bill Toomey was part of a team of volunteers who helped dig a hole on a floor of the collapsed PGC building to rescue trapped people.
MATTY LOVELL
Workers enter the PGC Building through a hole cut in a concrete floor.
DEREK FLYNN/FAIRFAX NZ
A woman is freed from the PGC building after being trapped for more than 20 hours.
DEREK FLYNN/FAIRFAX NZ
Urban Search and Rescue at the PGC building work to free people day after the February 22, 2011, earthquake.

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Christchurch builder Bill Toomey has won a landmark case against ACC to cover the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered after pulling people from a collapsed building after the February 2011 earthquake.

After the earthquake hit, Toomey downed his tools and drove into town to see how he could help.

Firemen took him into the PGC building, where he helped drill through a concrete floor to rescue people trapped inside.

He described the scene as "horrific".

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"I could hear people screaming, there was dust everywhere."

Two years later, Toomey had what he thought was a heart attack. After three hospital admissions and a battery of tests, he was diagnosed with PTSD.

His symptoms included chest pain, difficulty with walking, nightmares and shaking. He was unable to work for more than two years.

Concrete dust, sirens and people screaming could trigger Toomey's shaking. He would struggle to breathe and think he would die.

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ACC denied his claim because his mental health injury was not triggered at work.

His lawyer, Louise Newman from John Miller Law, said the ACC Act covered mental injury in limited circumstances.

"We argued it was still a work-related injury because he was using his specialist skills as a builder," she said.

"We don't want to deincentivise people wanting to help with emergency situations."

The Auckland District Court agreed it was a work-related injury.

Newman said opened the door for less restrictive legislation for mental injury cover.

Toomey said the court decision took a heavy weight off his shoulders.

"It was amazing. I had to ring my lawyer again after she told me the news to make sure I wasn't dreaming."

Toomey said his condition improved after a year of counselling. He had started to work again.

He hoped he would get back-pay from ACC and that his case would help other people get cover for mental health conditions.

An ACC spokesman said the claim was denied because ACC's interpretation of the legislation was that unpaid volunteers did not meet the legislative requirement to get cover.

The organisation's lawyers were reviewing the decision, which was released Friday, to decide whether or not to appeal it.

It was too early to tell what the decision would mean for other people suffering a mental injury while volunteering their professional skills, he said. 

- Stuff

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