Dying man Ricky Bligh to get day in court for earthquake case
The morning his earthquake insurance trial was to begin, dying man Derek Ricky Bligh's lawyers pulled out.
The lawyers – Andrew Ferguson, Jeremy Morriss and Grant Shand – were supposed to be paid by earthquake advice company Claims Resolution Service Limited (CRSL).
CRSL would take a percentage of any winnings in a "no win, no pay" deal.
Bligh was waiting in his car last October 31 while the judge, Justice Karen Clark, examined his property in Waddington, between Darfield and Springfield.
The earthquake damage proceedings against insurer IAG and the Earthquake Commission (EQC) were to start in Christchurch a few hours later.
CRSL director Bryan Staples told Bligh over the phone his case was too weak and he should negotiate for a settlement.
EQC and IAG claimed damage to Bligh's house was not caused by earthquakes and experts backed that up.
According to a just-released High Court decision, Staples said if Bligh did not withdraw from the trial, CRSL would withdraw its funding for legal services.
Bligh – a retiree with Parkinson's disease, heart disease, and terminal cancer – was confused by Staples' advice.
Staples wrote on Facebook the previous month that EQC was taking "a dying man named Ricky Bligh" to court.
The post promised to fight for justice. It said a video interview with Bligh would "wrench your heart".
Fewer than two weeks before the October trial, Ferguson told Bligh's son the case might not be successful.
According to the decision, Bligh said that was the first time he heard this. He told the court he did not give it much attention because, until then, his advisers told him he had a good case.
Bligh said there were mixed messages. Staples told him the previous month repairing his garage would cost more than the $100,000 EQC cap.
In the week before the trial there was a "flurry of activity" where experts assessed the property – despite CRSL and Bligh's lawyers having had four years to prepare the case.
Bligh arrived at court late on October 31. He told the court last week he thought he had to wait at home to meet an engineer witness.
By the time he got to court, Ferguson had withdrawn as his counsel and the trial was dismissed at IAG and EQC's request.
He sought new counsel and appealed the decision to dismiss his case.
Bligh told the High Court last week he believed evidence supported his claim that his property was earthquake damaged and he did not understand how he could lose.
The evidence was provided by experts and engineers, mostly commissioned by his lawyers and CRSL.
Last week, Associate Justice John Matthews overturned the dismissal, saying there was a miscarriage of justice.
Justice Matthews said in his judgment that, based on the evidence, CRSL showed a "consistently positive exposition" to Bligh on his case.
"It is little wonder that he was confused by the late and apparently sudden change of position about the strength of his case."
Justice Matthews said there was no record of Ferguson asking for the case to be stood down until Bligh could get into town, or seeking an adjournment.
Ferguson and Shand did not appear to have given Bligh reasonable notice they were pulling out nor help finding another lawyer, which the judge said were their professional obligations as his lawyers.
"The apparent (but not established) breaches of professional obligations to which Mr Bligh was entitled is a factor which, in my opinion, weighs in favour of a finding on this application in favour of Mr Bligh."
The decision means Bligh can pursue the trial with his new lawyers.
JUDGE 'A BIT UNFAIR' - LAWYERS
CRSL employee Bill Dwyer and Shand told Stuff they disputed Bligh's version of events. CRSL and the lawyers told Bligh his case was weak two months before the court hearing.
Dwyer said CRSL funded cases on a "no win, no pay" basis on the condition clients cooperated with legal advice.
"What we don't do, and what no-one would ever do, is just completely pay at the direction of the client."
Dwyer said Ferguson did not neglect his duties and tried to help Bligh apply for legal aid.
Shand disagreed legal preparations were left to the last minute.
"It's not unusual for people to rush around just prior to the trial, because new things emerge and we had to deal with the evidence of EQC and the insurer and reply to that evidence."
Shand said Bligh received advice about his case "throughout the process".
Shand said EQC and IAG made a settlement offer on October 20 and he encouraged Bligh to push for an extra $20,000 to $30,000.
He said Bligh preferred to go to trial because the settlement would not pay for a full rebuild.
Shand said it was "a bit unfair" for Justice Matthews to accuse the lawyers of neglecting their duties without their involvement.
Bligh could not be reached for comment.