Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is a NZME. News Service journalist based in Auckland.

Man threatened to burn himself alive over quake insurance

File photo / Geoff Sloan
File photo / Geoff Sloan

A Christchurch man threatened to douse himself in petrol and set himself on fire in Hagley Park in a last-ditch effort to resolve an insurance dispute over his quake-damaged house.

The incident earlier this year has raised concerns that similarly desperate Cantabrians might give up before they seek help over insurance settlement grievances.

Insurance and Savings Ombudsman Karen Stevens, whose office deals with insurance disputes after internal complaints processes are exhausted, detailed the incident at an international conference of government and industry watchdogs in Wellington today.

The man had contacted her office in June after his insurer refused to deal with him except through its lawyer.

The insurer had agreed to settle, but when the man still had not been paid out after agreeing to buy another property he became "very angry and upset".

"His contact with the insurer became more and more fraught. He had no confidence in the people he was dealing with and then the insurer told him that he could not deal with all of the staff - he was only allowed to deal with the legal counsel."

Ms Stevens said in total desperation, he threatened to "douse himself in petrol and set fire to himself in Hagley Park".

"He said that it was the only way that he could get the proceeds of his life policy to pay for the purchase of the property for his wife."

The insurer eventually paid out his claim but refused to have anything further to do with him after contacting police, saying he was a danger to himself and its staff.

Ms Stevens said the man approached her office seeking help to restore his relationship with the insurer.

The office did not launch a formal investigation but helped to restore contact, which the insurer agreed to - provided the man was not abusive or threatening to staff.

Ms Stevens was concerned similarly desperate people might give up before contacting her office.

"This is a real challenge to us going forward - to make sure that all consumers with complaints who can access the Insurance and Savings Ombudsman scheme actually get to our scheme, so that if we can help them, we do help them."

Ms Stevens said a big part of that was getting the right information to consumers.

The Insurance and Savings Ombudsman has investigated about 40 complaints and received about 800 inquiries since the September 4, 2010 earthquake.

The inquiries at first were about delays, how to contact Earthquake Commission and whether or not customers were covered.

But with time, the number of complaints about temporary accommodation and settlements grew.

"All sorts of issues have arisen that you couldn't have contemplated before this disaster."

Ms Stevens said the Ombudsman scheme could make decisions only on one-off investigations, rather than general rulings, and insurers could choose not to accept a decision.

Legal precedent may be needed settle more complex issues, such as whether insurers had to pay for the actual damage to red zone houses, or to pay out a insurance claim in full.

Chief Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford told the conference that business and human rights was an emerging area. In New Zealand, a number of insurers had signed up to international agreements to abide by international human rights norms.

The conference also heard from Japanese and Australian Ombudsman officials who discussed their responses to recent natural disasters - including last year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the floods and cyclones that hit Queensland two year's ago.

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