More than 30 years after an army training exercise accident rendered him a tetraplegic, Cabinet has approved a formal apology and ex gratia payment to former soldier George Nepata.
Nepata was dropped 3-4 metres during a live stretcher carry across an obstacle course in Singapore in 1989 in which he suffered a broken neck.
The amount of the payment hasn't been disclosed, and in a statement, Minister of Defence Ron Mark said the payment is a recognition of the NZ Defence Force's failure to provide a safe system of work.
“This is an issue I’ve continued to raise over the past 20 years - I’ve felt strongly that the Government has had a moral obligation to address this and I’m pleased there has finally been a resolution,” said Ron Mark.
Māori Television's Native Affairs has extensively covered the story of George Nepata, and his brother Damien who has also campaigned for compensation for a separate accident 5 years after George's that left Damien with scars to 40% of his body.
Damien was driving a Scorpion tank during a training exercise when it flipped and caught fire. Tank Commander Barry Hemopo died in the incident.
The brother's campaign for compensation began 24 years ago. had the support of many Māori MP's in 2013, with then-National MP Tau Henare saying he would have liked the Māori Affairs Select Committee take a look at the brother's cases and see if the committee "can't put pressure on my mates in Cabinet."
Former Greens Co-Leader Metiria Tūrei said: "We need to restore to them at some of the loss at least that they've suffered."
Stuff reports Damien's case wasn't put to the cabinet by Mark, as "it was more complicated because it was a vehicle accident and Damien was the driver."
Ron Mark, however, says today's apology and compensation to George Nepata will hopefully provide some level of closure for George Nepata and his whanau.
“This apology reflects the fact that as a junior soldier George was obliged to obey the commands of his superiors during the exercise and had no opportunity to challenge the conduct of the exercise. The apology also acknowledges the efforts and costs associated with his petitions to Parliament, but most importantly it recognises the burden and struggles that George, his wife Kim and his wider whanau and family have borne since the accident."
Mark also points out the Cabinet decision will not set a precedent for further claims from soldiers injured while serving in the Defence Force.
“I note that the issue of setting a precedent has been a constant factor when this case has been considered over the years, by successive governments. However, the basis of this decision is that the government has a moral obligation not a legal one, and therefore it stands on its own merits.
“If other cases arise then they will need to be considered on their own merits," the Minister said.
“Finally, I would like to express my deep admiration for George Nepata and his whanau and how he has responded to the circumstances in which he has been placed. The injury he suffered was totally avoidable and unnecessary. I hope this apology from the government and New Zealand Defence Force, and the ex gratia payment, will help George to continue to make the best of the situation, as he has done for so long,” Mark said.
The payment will be made from within existing Defence Force baselines and no additional funding will be required.