Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is a journalist based in Auckland.

Injured brothers surprised by new figures

Former soldier Damien Nepata, displaying the burn injuries he received in a petrol explosion while serving in the NZ Army. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former soldier Damien Nepata, displaying the burn injuries he received in a petrol explosion while serving in the NZ Army. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Defence Force has paid out more than half a million dollars during the 16 years that two badly injured brothers have been fighting for compensation, newly released figures show.

Damien and George Nepata, who suffered horrific burns and paralysis in separate army training incidents, are awaiting a decision from Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman on whether they will receive compensation for their injuries.

In July, Parliament's Maori Affairs select committee recommended Dr Coleman authorise ex gratia payouts to the brothers, who have been battling for compensation since 1997.

During that time, the Defence Force has paid out more than half a million dollars to other claimants, figures released to APNZ under the Official Information Act show.

Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Rhys Jones said it had made 98 ex gratia payments worth $505,053.21 between 1996-97 and 2012-13.

Ex gratia payments are made in cases where there is no legal basis for a claim but where there is a moral obligation for a payment to be made.

Damien Nepata received burns to 40 per cent of his body when the Scorpion tank he was driving crashed, rolled and caught fire during training at Waiouru in 1994.

Five years earlier, his brother George was paralysed in a training accident in Singapore when he was dropped head-first by the soldiers carrying him up a slope on a stretcher.

The brothers, now aged in their 40s, received ACC payments and other entitlements for their injuries, but have never been compensated by the Government.

Damien Nepata said he was surprised by the number of ex gratia payouts the Defence Force had made since his fight began.

"That is quite a lot, actually - I'm quite surprised. I knew that there had been some, but I didn't think it would be close to a triple figure."

Mr Nepata said the Defence Force had never told the brothers up-front that it was authorised make ex gratia payments up to $30,000 without ministerial sign-off.

Instead, he had to draw out information "like pulling teeth".

"It would have been nice if they had even come to us and said, 'Look, here are the options.' But they didn't even give us that."

The brothers were looking at sums individually that could be significantly higher than the $30,000 threshold.

Mr Nepata said he had "slightly more hope" than the last time a select committee had recommended compensation, in 2003. That recommendation was turned down by the then Labour Government.

"We've got to this point before and had the carpet pulled out from underneath us, so we don't want to get our hopes too high unless that happens again."

George Nepata did not wish to comment until after Dr Coleman had made his decision.

That decision is understood to be due next month, but the Government is still waiting to see ACC records from both brothers.

Dr Coleman earlier said he had enormous sympathy for the brothers and was approaching the matter with an open mind. The Defence Force would not comment on the case while the matter was under his consideration.

Earlier this year, Defence Force chief of personnel Brigadier Howard Duffy said the army was very sympathetic to the brothers, but an ex gratia payment was a matter for the Government.

However, under Defence Force orders, last updated in October 2011, the force is able to authorise ex gratia payments of up to $30,000 without ministerial sign-off.

Ex gratia payments of between $30,000 to $75,000 must be authorised by the minister, while payments of more than $75,000 need to be signed off by Cabinet.

Of the ex gratia payments made since 1996, the Defence Force said in its OIA response that there was no way to differentiate between those made on Government orders and those made without.

Records of ex gratia payments before 1996 were no longer available.

- APNZ

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