Gravity of Muliaga's illness irrelevant, lawyer says

By David Fisher

Revelations Folole Muliaga was already gravely ill when Mercury Energy cut power to her home will not hinder a case for compensation, her family's lawyer has said.

Mrs Muliaga, 44, died on Tuesday after a contractor working for Mercury Energy disconnected power to her Mangere home, disabling an oxgyen machine she was given to assist her breathing.

The Herald on Sunday has learned Mrs Muliaga was fatally ill when she left hospital last month and not expected to live much longer.

The obesity-related heart and lung disease which was killing Mrs Muliaga was being kept at bay by a cocktail of powerful medication - not the oxygen machine.

Mrs Muliaga had previously turned her back on using the drugs to seek traditional Samoan health care. Her use of medication will be one focus of a police investigation into the contractor's actions.

However, Lawyer Olinda Woodroffe said the seriousness of Mrs Muliaga's illness was irrelevant.

She said Mrs Muliaga's illness would have been worsened by the stress of having the power cut to her home.

Ms Woodroffe said she expected to have the results of the post mortem examination later this week.

Other investigations are also underway in a bid to establish whether the disconnection was related to Mrs Muliaga's death. The power was cut even though the family had made two payments in the last month on their bill, and only owed $168.

News that Mrs Muliaga had previously rejected conventional medical help came as Mercury Energy announced it was suspending all disconnections.

The chairwoman of the parent company, Mighty River Power, offered a public apology for the tragedy, stating that "no one should ever die because they can't pay a power bill".

The company that employed the contractor for Mercury revealed it had explicit written instructions to cut the power to the Muliaga home.

The family announced her body would be returned home today, followed by a private service tomorrow and a public funeral on Wednesday.

Family spokesman Brendan Sheehan confirmed to the Herald on Sunday: "She was a very ill woman. She was gravely ill." Sheehan said he believed she had been taking her medication but did not know definitely. He also said it was common in Pacific Island families to seek traditional health care.

Middlemore Hospital bosses have refused to comment further on the case, citing the family's right to privacy. But police will be able to bypass privacy concerns in their investigation and will study medical records showing Mrs Muliaga had previously stopped taking medication given to her on release from hospital - instead opting to seek help through traditional Pacific Island healing methods.

The medication was critical to keeping her alive - although she had been told "her days were numbered", the Herald on Sunday learned.

Mrs Muliaga was suffering from cardiomyopathy - a weakness in the muscle of the heart brought on by a lack of oxygen being carried to the organ. The illness, lung disease and associated breathing difficulties were related to her obesity. She had been admitted to Middlemore Hospital in April and was discharged on May 11.

It was not the first time she had been hospitalised since the illness was diagnosed about five years ago. On previous hospital stays for the same problem, Muliaga had been told her lifestyle had to change or her health would not improve. This time, like previous times, she was stabilised and released with medication that would help relieve the symptoms. She was also given the oxygen machine, which is intended to assist her breathing - not to breathe for her.

When doctors who had treated her heard she had died after the power cut, they were astonished. On release, she was not so ill that the machine was critical to survival.

Inquiries by the Herald on Sunday have also revealed that efforts by Mercury Energy to contact the family could also have been thwarted by the family phone being disconnected.

Sheehan confirmed that on Tuesday - the day the power was disconnected - the family did not have a telephone account. It had been reconnected by Friday.

Family preparations for the funeral today gather speed, with Mrs Muliaga's body expected home in a casket donated by Sovereign Industries, a company which manufactures coffins.

The envelope containing a $10,000 cheque, donated on Friday by Mercury Energy, had not been opened and would be kept for Mrs Muliaga's children. Muliaga's family - father, brothers and sister - were due to arrive this morning from Samoa.

Lopaavea Muliaga spoke yesterday about his wife Folole. "My wife (was) an astoundingly loving mother, a humble mother, a straightforward person.

"She loved me greatly and deeply loved our children. She loved members of her own family as well as those of mine. She greatly loved her friends who studied with her at university. Most of all she loved her father who is still living today. She was a fighter. Even though she was ill during her time at school, she never thought of giving up."

He said she was a gentle woman although "moved to anger" when their children would not follow her example. "As a mother, my wife was always calm. No matter how anxious I was and tried to rush her, she was never flustered, she always took her time and answered any questions quietly.

"Her attitude was proof of the word in the Bible that a soft answer turns away anger. She was a very good mother."

It's been a long time coming but Mercury has apologised

Mercury Energy has finally apologised for its role in the tragic death of Folole Muliaga - although would not say what its role was.

Mighty River Power chairwoman Carole Durbin also announced that all disconnections had been cancelled, and expanded the family's apology to the wider public.

"I and everyone at Mercury Energy and Mighty River Power are deeply distressed about the events of this week. I wish to thank the Muliaga family for their generosity of spirit in receiving us.

"As we all know, the police investigation is yet to be concluded. I am here to say sorry publicly to the family and to apologise to the community for our part in this tragedy. Mrs Muliaga died, so clearly something went wrong.

"I am personally committed and determined to do everything we can to ensure this does not happen again. In the meantime you can be assured that our management advised me that all disconnections have been suspended indefinitely from last Wednesday.

"No one should ever die because they can't pay a power bill.

"The tragic events of the past week speak to a wider problem and the solution will involve numerous groups and interests. We will play our part.

"Finally can I say again just how sorry we are."

- Additional reporting NZPA

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