Quake-related lawsuits ramping up
Earthquake-related lawsuits are ramping up as more than 250 frustrated Cantabrians take their battles to court.
The number of legal challenges has been on a steep upward march over the past six months and Chief High Court Judge, Justice Helen Winkelmann, said there was "absolutely no indication this is tailing off".
Lawyers are seeing unprecedented anger, frustration, anxiety and stress in their Christchurch clients, with one high-profile insurance lawyer saying: "Never in my career have I seen so many tears in my office."
Christchurch lawyer Duncan Webb fears the figures only scratch the surface of those embittered with their insurance companies or the Earthquake Commission.
"For each case in court there is a dozen people who have settled with a bitter taste in their mouth and a whole lot more who don't have the resources to investigate those options," he said.
Ministry of Justice figures show there are 207 quake claims before the High Court and 50 before the District Court, most lodged by residential property owners against insurers.
Webb, who is a partner at Lane Neave, said the prolific number of cases was alarming because filing proceedings was "utterly a last resort".
"People don't file cases lightly. It takes six to eight months to get to the point where you have sufficiently investigated your situation and reached absolute deadlock with your insurer."
Court was "heart-wrenching and expensive" and it would cost a homeowner tens of thousands of dollars in engineering reports, quantity surveyor costings and legal fees before they could even consider filing proceedings, Webb said.
Those without dispensable cash were being left at "the mercy of their insurers".
"It is a long standing problem that ordinary people can't afford to get justice in courts. The problem is that at this moment many, many more people need it who can't afford it," he said.
A fast-track system to hear quake claims as swiftly as a court's resources allows was set up in 2011 to give priority to urgent cases or those that had precedential value that could help others settle similar disputes outside the courtroom.
Most civil cases take about a year to go to trial but the system allows High Court trials to be held about 65 days after a claim is filed and required that cases before the District Court, which considers claims under $200,000, would go before a judge within 50 working days.
"I imagine there will be high levels of filing over the next few years. It is going to be busy," Justice Winkelmann said.
Richard Johnstone, leader of the Wynn Williams specialist insurance team, is acting on behalf of one major insurer claims management company and close to 100 private policy holders.
Extra staff had been hired because the number of quake claims "is likely to continue climbing", he said. "Individual homeowners are getting more desperate and frustrated. There is a heightened sense of emotional extremes and people who have just had enough," Johnstone said.
"Never in my career have I had so many people in tears in my office."
* 207 quake claims before the High Court, with 162 currently active, 45 that have been disposed of and 10 that are ready to be heard and have a date of hearing allocated. 50 quake claims before the District Court, 24 that have been filed since June 2013. Eleven of the claims have been settled and seven are proceeding through the defended hearing process.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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