Pike families lose appeal on Whittall
An appeal against the decision to drop charges against former Pike River boss Peter Whittall has been rejected.
Sonya Rockhouse, who lost her 21-year-old son Ben in the 2010 Pike River Mine disaster, and Anna Osborne, who lost husband Milton, had sought a judicial review of the decision by WorkSafe NZ to drop the charges against Whittall.
The Court of Appeal has upheld a High Court decision to reject the review.
Twenty-nine men died when the West Coast coal mine exploded on November 19, 2010. Whittall, the mine’s chief executive at the time, initially faced 12 health-and-safety charges, but all were dropped in December 2013.
Osborne said she was ‘‘absolutely gutted’’ at the latest rejection. ‘‘It’s despicable that people can buy their way out of justice. I’m so frustrated with the court system.’’
The families and two survivors had received payments totalling $3.4 million from Whittall’s insurer.
Osborne said they had no say in whether to accept or reject the money, which amounted to $110,000 per family.
She said they would be taking their quest for judicial review to the Supreme Court.
Pike River Coal Ltd, the mine owner, pleaded guilty to nine charges and was fined $760,000 and ordered to pay $3.41m in reparation.
Whittall offered to make a voluntary payment of $3.41m from his insurer if WorkSafe NZ did not offer any evidence against him.
The Court of Appeal has found the decision by Worksafe was ‘‘lawfully made’’.
‘‘There was no unlawful agreement to stifle the prosecution by payment of money. As a matter of law, the prosecutor was entitled to consider and give weight to a conditional reparation undertaking as one factor in deciding whether or not to pursue the prosecution further. WorkSafe was found by the Court to have properly and independently considered Mr Whittall’s reparation undertaking, amongst other factors, in concluding it was no longer in the public interest to pursue prosecution of Mr Whittall.’’
Pike families were at Parliament yesterday as a petition was presented to a select committee urging re-entry into the mine to recover the 29 bodies. Solid Energy’s annual review hearing before the commerce committee was held straight after, and chairman Andy Coupe said he would consider resigning if the company was forced to re-enter the mine, because he didn’t want to put people at risk.
However, former New Zealand chief inspector of mines Tony Forster earlier said the drift could be made safe through ventilation, and he would enter it himself.
After the hearing, Rockhouse said she felt like the families had a win. They felt confident the advice of their experts had had an effect on the select committee.
Solid Energy’s claims that its expert was better than the families’ were unfounded, she said.