1 Nov 2016

'Quick fix' of broken door handle led to boy's death

9:14 pm on 1 November 2016

The "quick fix" of a door handle led to the death of a Napier school boy who was found hanging from a bathroom window by his shirt last year, an inquest has been told.

Coroner Tim Scott has reserved his decision after a day-long hearing into the death of Aryan Banerjee, 9, who died of accidental strangulation.

Aryan had been unable to open the door, which had been left without a handle during repairs, and his shirt got caught on a window latch as he tried to climb out of the cubicle at Taradale Primary School on 25 May last year.

He was found unconscious and struggling to breathe, and died in Hawke's Bay Regional Hospital on 9 September 2015.

Aryan Banerjee

Aryan Banerjee Photo: Supplied

The school caretaker told the inquest the door handle had been removed 10 minutes before class finished for lunch.

The man - who has name suppression - said there was no teacher in Aryan's class to alert to the repairs and he saw it as an opportunity to do a "quick fix".

He confirmed he did not lock the cloakroom door leading to the toilets, which would have prevented access.

Questioned about the timing of the repairs by the Banerjee family lawyer, Nigel Hampton QC, the caretaker said children could use the toilet whenever they liked.

"I think, children - whenever they want to go the toilet, they go. They don't go to a time schedule."

When asked if the repair could have been left until after school, the caretaker said he "was trying to have it done before lunch".

"I tried to tighten a screw. I thought that's all it was. Unfortunately the screw had broken. There was a possibility the other screw may give way, and that's why I did it at that time."

Under cross examination, the caretaker also said the school had no health and safety protocols in place for bathroom repairs, then or now.

The man said Aryan's strangulation "was an unfortunate accident".

He said cones and signs were now used to mark any repairs being done in school toilets.

Taradale Primary School principal Martin Hantz told the inquest the school had experienced other instances of children finding themselves locked in toilet cubicles, including his own daughter.

"We don't have children locked in toilets very often, but yes, when they are, they panic and cry. My experience is that they will bang on the doors, and they will yell."

No time for private prosecution

Police have always maintained the case was an accident, and have not laid charges.

Neither has WorkSafe, whose investigation found the circumstances that caused the death were not reasonably foreseeable and charges were not legally justified.

Speaking after the inquest, Aryan's father revealed the family had run out of time to file a private prosecution.

"Unfortunately we're beyond the statute of limitations on that, so there is no chance for a private prosecution," Anjan Banerjee told RNZ.

Asked if this was the end of the road for the family's fight, Dr Banerjee said "we'll see what the coroner says, but I don't hold out any hope for anything further".

Dr Banerjee said today's inquest was "very difficult".

"It relives memories that were very painful, and still are, but it allows us to go through everything and hopefully gain some closure."

Dr Banerjee said he was surprised the caretaker, who admitted previously working in a shopping mall, could not translate his health and safety knowledge from there to a school environment.

"He seemed to forget that you need to put out cones or put out any kind of protection when dealing with a door handle. He took off the whole door handle, then he left the door open and he didn't tell anyone. How can you do that? How can you overlook the simple practical steps to protect people from a door that you can't open?"

Despite that, Dr Banerjee said the family was still mulling over a face-to-face meeting with the caretaker to talk things through.

"I think in many ways the school has apologised, they've also been very supportive. But at the same time, because the coroner's inquest was hanging over them, I think that's why we haven't had an apology as yet."