MAJOR COURT CASE TO BE LAUNCHED AGAINST FIJI INSURANCE COMPANIES OVER MAY 19

RIOTS

By Erin Phelan PINA Nius Online

SUVA, Fiji Islands (June 14, 2000 - PINA Nius Online, June 14, 2000) - A class action suit is expected to be filed by the end of this week against insurance companies and brokers refusing to pay claims to businesses that suffered losses during the May 19 Suva riot.

In an interview with PINA Nius Online, Fiji Retailers Association President Himmat Lodhia said at least 100 members of the Fiji Retailers Association will file collectively to seek compensation for millions of dollars lost during the looting that hit 178 Suva businesses almost four weeks ago. Five insurance companies - Tower Insurance Ltd., Queensland Insurance Ltd., Dominion Insurance Ltd., The New India Assurance Co. Ltd. and Sun Insurance Co. Ltd. will be named in the law suit, along with independent insurance brokers.

Two weeks ago the five major insurance companies combined forces and placed large advertisements in Fiji's daily newspapers announcing that no member would be admitting liability for any loss that arose from the events of May 19. Quoting a War Exclusion clause, the advertisement read:

"This policy does not cover any loss or damage directly or indirectly caused by or resulting from (a) War, invasion, acts of foreign enemy, warlike operations (whether war is declared or not), civil war, mutiny rebellion, revolution, insurrection, military or usurped power."

"One of the bones to pick with the insurance companies lies with the ‘usurping powers’ clause they are citing," Lohdia said, explaining that this War Exclusion clause was present in insurance policies at the time of the coups thirteen years ago. "In 1987 the insurance companies paid up. Since then, they have increased their premiums, and haven't changed that clause. The difference this time is that the quantum loss of damages is much higher."

The Fiji Retailers Association has consulted Queen's Counsel, law specialists in insurance claims, who are "very interested" in the case. Lodhia said it is "highly likely" a Queen's Counsel team from either New Zealand or Australia will be brought in for the major court battle, and will work alongside a local Fijian counterpart law firm that has yet be to named.

General Manager of Tower Insurance Ltd., Geoff Thompson said he was surprised at moves towards a lawsuit.

"No one has been declined a claim," Mr. Thompson said, adding that the advertisement placed did not state that insurance companies were not going to pay damages." At this stage, as far as Tower Insurance is concerned, no claims have been declined or approved. Loss adjustors have been sent to assess the claims, and we are checking out what the actual loss was in each case. A decision will be made once we have consulted with lawyers, particularly when looking at the War Clause."

Mr. Lodhia predicts that at least 20 percent of the businesses hit May 19 will never reopen, regardless of insurance claims. "Some will go overseas, even if they get their insurance claims. Because of the uncertain future they will take their money and live happily ever after…elsewhere.

"Fiji is not necessarily a big profit-making place. It is a place we thought we had a lot of peace and other advantages. In Fiji, the lifestyle has always been more important," Lodhia said.

Lodhia said that the road to 'normalcy' for Suva retailers is painstakingly slow. "Things are far from normal yet," Lodhia said. "We're trying to look at the positive, to be optimistic but it is difficult."

Efforts have been made to clean up downtown Suva. But some storefront windows have been replaced by wooden boards, and some storeowners have still not cleaned up the damage from almost one month ago. Lodhia said some members who have contacted the FRA still have doubts about security issues.

The FRA called upon the army to place more soldiers on the downtown streets during shopping hours; however, at this time, soldiers are stationed at the Central Police Station and are patrolling on foot and in vehicles.

"There isn't an ample amount of visual security," Lodhia said, adding that when he inquired as to why soldiers could not man the streets, he was told by the army that there were too many calls for individual premises to be secured. "We'd prefer the visual presence, but for now we have to take our own precautions."

Presently, roughly 50 percent of local businesses have reopened - many on a skeletal basis - but further trickle down problems stem from job losses in various industries over the past few weeks.

"Look at the garment industry: they employ 20,000 people. For businesses, that meant 20,000 clients roaming through stores at the end of the week to spend their money. Now, there are so many less clients," Lodhia said.

The route to normalcy, as far as the Fiji Retailers Association is concerned, lies with the hostages being released and the trade sanctions being called off. Lodhia said that exporters are being hardest hit – as import-driven businesses have kept alternate channels open in the past with markets elsewhere, such as China and other neighboring Asian countries. But export-driven businesses - such as garment factories - are in threat of closing down due to their reliance on Australian and New Zealand markets.

This morning, the Fiji Military Forces has reported that five container boats returned to Fiji from Australia without any cargo.

Lodhia said that Fiji Trade Union Congress General Secretary Felix Anthony's statements - which Lodhia believes have encouraged the trade bans - have added to the instability in Fiji. He questioned Anthony's agenda, saying it was more of a political nature.

"A lot of people are crying out for democracy. We in the business community are more interested in stability," said Lodhia. "Many people don't care which government is in power, as long as there is stability."

On day 27 of the Fiji crisis:

* Attempted coup leader George Speight and his armed indigenous Fijian supporters continued to hold the country's first ethnic Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, and other members of his government hostage in the parliamentary complex in suburban Suva.

* The curfew ban imposed by the Fiji Military Forces was lifted in the Western and Northern parts of Fiji. Radio Fiji reported that this was to bring parts of Fiji back to a state of normalcy, by allowing restaurants and bars to stay open later.

* The Fiji Times/FM96/Radio Fiji report that an interim civilian government will be named by the end of this week. Fiji Military Forces commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama told a press conference that the administration will be made up of professional, competent and a political individuals. He has remained firm in his stance that members from Speight's camp will not be included in the interim administration.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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