27 Aug 2015

Battle-weary quake victims sue insurer

9:31 am on 27 August 2015

The damage to Maria de Vries' large Redcliffs home is startling.

Gib is falling off the walls and ceilings, parts of the roof have caved in and are boarded up and plastic sheeting covers big sections of the property's exterior.

Maria de Vries' home.

Maria de Vries' home. Photo: RNZ/Sally Murphy

Her insurer Southern Response said it could repair her house for $289,000 but expert advice suggested it needed to be rebuilt, and the cost would be upwards of $1.7 million.

The 77-year-old is among the 47 Southern Response policy holders who have launched a class action against their insurer after more than four-and-a-half years battling earthquake claims.

A claim against the Crown-owned insurer, which handles thousands of AMI's earthquake claims, was filed in the Christchurch High Court yesterday.

Ms de Vries said joining a class action was her "last resort" and said she wanted to see her home fixed so she could downsize before she "kicks the bucket".

Maria de Vries.

Maria de Vries. Photo: RNZ/Sally Murphy

"It's been so long now... I can still live here, I'm grateful for that."

She said she was lucky to have a small bedroom downstairs so she could "keep warm in the winter".

She said Southern Response had only recently weather-proofed her home with plastic sheeting.

"Before that there was gaps and hole... and when the wind blew, I blew with it."

Richmond homeowner Kelvin Yeadon said his insurer estimated it could fix his property's foundations for $286,000.

He said independent engineering advice has valued the damage at $1.2m.

Mr Yeadon said battling with Southern Response had been a drawn-out and stressful process, made far worse by the loss of his partner.

"During the proceedings, my partner passed away from cancer, so obviously that's added to the burden."

He said he joined the class action because he felt he owed it to his partner to ensure their home was restored to its pre-earthquake condition.

The group's representative, another Richmond homeowner Cameron Preston, said it was unfortunate that taxpayers would bear the cost of Southern Response's claims but said homeowners were entitled to have their policies fulfilled.

He said Southern Response valued the damage to his home at $178,000, a figure which he disputed for almost four years.

Mr Preston said about a week ago - once Southern Response became aware that he was part of the class action - they changed the value of his claim to $772,000.

"We have sat back for far too long while they have manipulated experts, while they have manipulated what is in the policy and they have sought to do that to reduce the burden to taxpayers."

Lawyer Grant Cameron.

Lawyer Grant Cameron. Photo: RNZ/Sally Murphy

The lawyer representing the group, Grant Cameron, said Southern Response had underestimated the value of people's claims, by up to 60 percent in some cases.

The case had the backing of a litigation funding company, meaning homeowners would only pay legal fees - of up to 20 percent of their settlement values - if they were successful.

A Southern Response spokeswoman said the firm would strongly defend the class action, which it said had no merit.

She said the "quickest and fairest way" to settle claims was on an individual basis but said Southern Response remained committed to progressing the claims of the 47 policy holders, despite the litigation.

The High Court has been asked to make an opt-in order, allowing other policyholders three months to join the action.

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