All charges dropped by New Zealand Government against ex-Pike River chief executive
12 December 2013
On December 11 the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment dropped all 12 health and safety charges against Pike River Coal Ltd's former chief executive, Peter Whittall, saying it had a poor chance of successfully prosecuting him. The charges were laid under the Health and Safety in Employment Act after the November 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 men in the South Island deep mine.
The case, being heard in Christchurch District Court, was abandoned after an extensive review that concluded it was "not appropriate to continue with the prosecution against Mr Whittall''.
Instead, Mr Whittall and Pike River Coal offered a voluntary payment on behalf of the directors and officers of the company to the families of the men and two survivors.
Judge Jane Farish said the surprise turn of events was not a case of a chief executive "buying his way out of a prosecution''.
She told the court the likelihood of a prosecution was "extremely low'' and the case may never have reached trial.
In a statement from four former directors of Pike River Coal said the money that would have been spent defending the case would now go to the families.
Some $110,000 would be given to each of the families and survivors - totalling $3.41 million. The directors - Peter Whittall, John Dow, Ray Meyer and Stuart Nattrass - have also offered to meet with the families.
Mark Zarifeh, counsel for MBIE said one of the major problems was ``witness availability''.
Of the 92 witnesses who had given a brief of evidence, 31 of them had not been signed "for one reason or another''. Of those, 14 witnesses are outside New Zealand , living predominantly in Australia, and the Crown lawyers had no powers to summons witnesses living overseas.
The main reasons given for not continuing with the prosecution were:
* The penalties for the charges against Mr Whittall will only be fines. Each charge carried a maximum fine of $NZ250,000.
* The principal offender PRCL (Pike River Coal Limited) has been convicted and fined with record fines and a very substantial order for reparation imposed.
* Mr Whittall is charged as a secondary party on the basis that he acquiesced or participated in PRCL offending.
* The Royal Commission into the Pike River mine disaster has heard extensive evidence and provided a comprehensive report on the causes of the explosion at the mine, the cause of loss of life, and the requirements of the Act or Regulations or other laws governing underground coalmining etc.
* The $3.41m reparation order.
* A prosecution requiring a 16-20 week trial in Wellington will be a "very high cost one in both financial and resource terms and best use of limited resources is an appropriate consideration".
Speaking outside the court, Bernie Monk, whose son Michael Monk died in the explosion said: "Justice just wasn't served today for the families”.
"We've always said this disaster made a laughing stock of mining, and the justice system, now, is in the same place." He said the victims’ families would not drop the matter and would take further, unspecified action.
Ged O'Connell, assistant national secretary of the EPMU union, said he was ``stunned into silence'' when he heard the decision, adding, "It's an appalling indictment on the health and safety culture of New Zealand.''
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