Samoa village leaders must pay $863,710 for arson, ban

The Court of Appeal has dismissed an appeal by village leaders against paying damages of more than $800,000 for threatening to burn a family alive, while ordering their banishment and destruction of property.

“The harm caused was great,” reads the decision from the Court of Appeal against the Ali’i and Faipule – chiefs and village council – of Tanugamanono. “Property losses were high. Six people were evicted from their homes. Another 26 were prohibited from returning to their ancestral lands. It is uncertain whether it will ever be safe for the respondents to return.”

Village leaders must now pay $863,710 to the Afu Faumuina Tutuila family. The judgement brings to an end legal action stemming from events in 2010, when village and traditional leaders were infuriated by the family objecting to a new church building that went over their property lines.

They ordered the family of Afu Faumuina Tutuila banished from the village, sending youth on a stoning attack, smashing their front door, windows, furniture and personal items, and damaging three family vehicles.

Ali’i and Faipule then threatened to burn down the Tutuila home, with them in it if they did not leave. Fined heavily in the Supreme Court, the village leaders appealed the judgement against them of $963,710, claiming there was a need for a “cultural democracy” in Samoa, balancing “democratic ideals and human rights with indigenous customs and traditions.”

Their appeal to dismiss the claims against them was rejected by the Court of Appeal. In their judgement, Justices Fisher, Justice Hammond and Justice Blanchard did agree to reduce special damages from $150,000 to $50,000 tala.

“Modest though this sum may be, it will serve as symbolic recognition of the suffering of the family and the outrageous conduct of the appellants,” they wrote. Delivering their judgement on 31st January last month, the Justices described the events in Tanugamanono in 2010 as “an unusually bad breach of the constitution.”

They only agreed to reduce the special damages because of concern within the judiciary that claims in constitutional cases were getting overly high. The Tutuila family had claimed $1 million tala for general damages and $5 million tala for punitive damages, stating the village fono conduct was “outrageous, deliberate, vicious and criminal and placed the lives of the Plaintiffs in grave danger.”

After they were forced from the village, in October 2010, the hedge marking the property line was destroyed, along with pigs, chickens, and plantations of bananas, breadfruit, and coconut trees.

They bulldozed the family land, and Ms. Tutuila’s sister was suspended from her job at the local medical centre. Finally villagers set fire to four buildings including the family home, which were either damaged or destroyed.

Village leaders made the orders despite their ban being rejected by the Lands and Titles Court and thereby placing themselves in contempt of court.

“There could be no doubt over the suffering which the banishments caused the family,” wrote the Court of Appeal.

“Nor could there be any doubt over the oppressive conduct of the appellants in defiance of Court orders.”

In rejecting the appeal from the village fono, the Court of Appeal disagreed with submissions on behalf of the village towards a ‘cultural democracy’ and the need to “marry” foreign systems with local values.


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