19 Apr 2013

Company didn't ensure miners' safety, judge rules

2:12 pm on 19 April 2013

Pike River Coal Ltd failed to ensure the safety of workers killed in explosions on the West Coast mine in 2010, a judge has ruled.

On Thursday, the company, which owned the mine at the time, was found guilty on all nine charges laid by the former Department of Labour at the Greymouth District Court.

Twenty-nine men died following a series of explosions that began on 19 November 2010 at the West Coast mine. Only two workers managed to get out to safety.

The disaster led the department to accuse Pike River Coal under the Health and Safety Act of failing to provide safety features that could have stopped the fatal blasts.

An interim judgement by Judge Jane Farish on Thursday found that Pike River Coal could have prevented the deaths, but failed to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its workers as well as external contractors and subcontractors.

Judge Farish said the safety breaches by the company could have caused the explosions and subsequent deaths of the 29 men, and all nine charges had been proved.

The court was told there weren't enough gas detectors - and there should have been better drainage of methane gas in the mine. This was also highlighted by a Royal Commission report into the disaster released last year.

Each of the charges carries a maximum penalty of $250,000. Judge Farish will release her full findings in two weeks and Pike River Coal will be sentenced in Greymouth on 4 and 5 July.

The mine's receivers, PricewaterhouseCoopers, chose not to defend the charges when they were heard in court in March this year.

Bernie Monk, the spokesperson for some of the families, is pleased to see that some of judge's findings point to the causes of the explosions, and says unlike other court hearings, Thursday's judgement finds accountability.

But the lawyer for the Pike River families says any financial penalties as a result of the guilty verdicts will mean nothing for them. Nicholas Davidson told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme the ruling will only act as a reflection of what went wrong.

"The reality is this is not going to reflect as a punishment; all it can really do now is offer a reflection of the court's perspective of what happened and how it should be measured in terms of responsibility.

"But fines don't seem to go very far, in this regard, they don't seem to have much sting. And certainly for most family members, they mean nothing."

Meanwhile, 12 charges have been laid against Pike River Coal's former chief executive, Peter Whittall, who is yet to have his hearing as lawyers argue over whether it should be held in Greymouth or Wellington. Judge Farish is expected to announce her decision on that by 22 May.

Receivers say no money to pay fines

The receivers for Pike River Coal say the company won't be able to pay any fines imposed by the court.

John Fisk, from PricewaterhouseCoopers, told Checkpoint the company has $1 million and still owes secured creditors just over $20 million.

"Obviously, I don't want to pre-empt what the court might decide. We're over $2 million potentially - the company doesn't have that money.

"In insolvency law, the money has to be paid out in a strict order of priority, and in this case there's still money outstanding to secured creditors.

"The only prospect of any payment being made would be from any statutory liability policy, and we'll provide information to the court."

Mr Fisk says the receivers won't be making any representations to the court on the fines or reparation before sentencing in July.