'Humbled' MP accepts ruling on assault case

An MP who yesterday lost a rare civil assault case has described the experience as "humbling".

Native Forest Action supporter Neil Abel won the case against National MP Gerry Brownlee. He was awarded $8500 in damages by Judge Frederick McElrea.

Outside the Auckland District Court, Mr Abel said he was pleased and felt vindicated in laying his claim against the MP.

Mr Brownlee said: "I have found the last few days to be humbling, but I accept the judgment. We will not be taking it further. There will be no appeal."

The claim of assault and damages against the MP arose after the National Party's election campaign launch in 1999 at Eden Park.

Mr Abel said he feared for his life when he heard Mr Brownlee threaten to throw him down a marble staircase after he had been ejected from the launch.

He had interrupted the then Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, to make a point about her Government's policy of allowing logging of native forests on the West Coast.

Mr Brownlee, who denied making the threat, said after the decision that he was pleased Judge McElrea did not find that he set out to harm Mr Abel.

The MP said the allegations were serious and were defended vigorously, but he had also been keen to see Mr Abel have his day in court.

Judge McElrea, in a 90-minute decision, found that Mr Abel was not entitled to punitive or exemplary damages, which he said were awarded only for outrageous or flagrant misconduct in serious cases.

The judge said his reasons for not granting exemplary damages included Mr Brownlee's apparent belief that Mr Abel was determined not to leave the launch after interrupting Mrs Shipley.

Mr Brownlee had temporarily lost control as a result of his anger at falling down some stairs. It did not justify his actions but explained his conduct.

Mr Brownlee also felt a sense of grievance, not against Mr Abel but against the organisation of the launch, which Judge McElrea said was not able to deal with protesters.

Mr Abel had laid a complaint of assault with the police, who declined to prosecute. In his civil action, the standard of proof was lower than for a police prosecution.

Judge McElrea said the court had been helped by video-taped news film which was played in court twice and which he viewed over 90 minutes in his chambers on Thursday night "mostly using the pause button of the video controls".

The judge accepted Mr Brownlee's denial that he threatened to throw Mr Abel down the stairs but said he was sure something was said that caused Mr Abel to believe that.

He said Mr Brownlee used excessive and unnecessary force on Mr Abel when he tried to remove him from a staircase handrail.

Mr Brownlee was up to twice Mr Abel's weight and was younger and fitter. Mr Abel was one week short of his 60th birthday at the time.

Judge McElrea said evidence at the hearing had been given honestly.

"There were no liars in this case."

He said that although Mr Abel and Mr Brownlee were members of different political parties, the case was not about politics.

Both had avoided inflammatory language in court and any suggestion of gloating at the other's plight.

"I trust that attitude will continue once my decision is known both in court today and in the future."

The question of costs has yet to be decided.

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