Pike fam­i­lies lose ap­peal on Whit­tall

The Press - - News-politics - JOANNE CAR­ROLL

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.

Peter Whit­tall

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