RSA killings survivor close to settlement

SIMON DAY
Last updated 01:00 06/12/2012
BATTLE AT AN END: Susan Couch, the sole survivor of the 2001 RSA killings, outside the High Court in Auckland earlier this year.
GRAHAME COX/Fairfax NZ
BATTLE AT AN END: 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 2001 RSA killings, is about to receive justice after a long battle with the Crown.

Couch has persisted for years in seeking damages from the Corrections Department following the brutal assault on her by William Bell at the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA in December 2001.

She sought $500,000 from Corrections for negligence by the Probation Service. She has suffered numerous setbacks from the courts over the past seven years, but it emerged yesterday that a settlement could be reached as early as today.

Negotiations have been taking place in recent days.

"I initiated discussions to achieve an outcome that I believe will be the right thing for Susan and her family," Corrections chief executive Ray Smith said yesterday.

He said that should be completed today.

Couch was nearly killed after she was beaten by Bell in his armed robbery of the RSA in which three of her co-workers, Wayne Johnson, Mary Hobson and Bill Absolum, were shot and bludgeoned to death. 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 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.

Now a settlement is close, but a figure is yet to be confirmed.

"I won't speculate on a figure, $500,000 is the amount in the statement of claim,” Ms Couch's lawyer Brian Henry said last night.

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.

Any settlement would be recognition of the failings of the department, Henry said.

"It is not compensation, this is punitive payment."

The agreement to settle would be a significant milestone, with the 11th anniversary of the shooting on Saturday.

"I'll be pleased if it settles. We have indicated that we think we are close,” Henry said.

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He said he couldn't comment on Couch's reaction.

Corrections Minister Anne Tolley said: "I am pleased that Ms Couch and Corrections are close to announcing an agreement.

"Ms Couch has had an extremely tough few years and it is time this issue is resolved.”

Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesman Garth McVicar said he was extremely pleased for Couch but was still concerned the greater problems with offending on parole have been ignored.

"Our initial thoughts are with Susan and it's a 10-year battle that we have been fighting,” he said.

“Our concerns are around the wider issues of parole and parolees, the systemic failures around Bell. It is about trying to protect others from the position she is in.”

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 2031.

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.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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