Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: CTV victims deserve corporate manslaughter law

Police and volunteers work to rescue people trapped in the collapsed CTV building. Photo / APN
Police and volunteers work to rescue people trapped in the collapsed CTV building. Photo / APN

On the third anniversary of the deadly February 2011 Christchurch earthquake, the police have retained engineering consultants Beca to assess the engineering issues arising from collapse of the modern CTV building. It's part of snail-paced process which, say the police, will enable them by September to decide whether to undertake a criminal investigation.

The six-storey CTV building, completed in 1988, took just 20 seconds to collapse, the floor plates breaking away from the walls, and pancaking to the ground. The death-toll was 115, two-thirds of the fatalities city-wide.

Most New Zealanders will sympathise with Geoff Brien, whose wife Pam died in the building. "I reckon they should prosecute. I want heads to roll over this. That building should never have got off the design board, it was an absolute dog." The Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission came to the same conclusion about the building. In a lot more words. But the commissioners were not asked to apportion blame.

Indeed, three years on, not one official has got round to doing that.

New Zealand's 40-year-old no-faults accident compensation scheme means relatives cannot take matters into their own hands and sue for negligence. Not that I'm suggesting we revert to that flawed and antiquated courtroom raffle.

Without resort to a civil law suit though, all that is left is the police, having to decide whether a crime has been committed, and by an individual. There is no charge of corporate manslaughter in New Zealand law, something that Labour's justice spokesman, Andrew Little, wants changed. A corporate manslaughter law would have ensured some accountability for the people who died, he says, and would "deal with collective failures of governance and management". Which is of no help to the CTV families.

For the families, in particular, but also for the wider public, the ongoing delay in holding a person, or persons, accountable under present law for the CTV catastrophe is both frustrating and dispiriting. The similarities with the Pike River mining disaster are only too obvious. In both, there's the appalling catalogue of failures of official systems designed to protect workers and the public from disaster, then the inability of the state afterwards to bring those responsible to book.

The earthquake royal commission revealed the CTV building was a death-trap from the design board onwards.

Tragically, there were several missed opportunities along the way, which if followed up, could have averted the ultimate tragedy. The design engineer had no experience in multi-storey buildings. His employer, Alan Reay, failed to oversee his work.

When Christchurch City's deputy-building engineer queried the design, his boss, after pressure from Mr Reay, said it was OK and it was signed off, even though it did not comply with the building code and should not have been consented.

In 1990, Holmes Consulting reviewed the design on behalf of a potential tenant and warned there was fatal weakness in the way the floors were attached to the walls and that, in an earthquake, this could cause a collapse.

Alan Reay Consultants were informed. They took 21 months to add some additional strengthening, but did not seek a building consent, so the council failed to get a second chance to catch up with the problem.

After the initial September 4, 2010, quake, and despite several large cracks, council inspectors green-stickered the building safe for use. Later that month, a chartered engineer retained by the building owner concluded there was no evidence of structural failure. He had no access to the structural drawings.

From this brief summary, it's obvious the 115 who died were let down at several stages. By the designers and the city council in the first instance, but along the way, there were times when whistles should have been blown and loudly, but were not. Is it any wonder the police are taking their time?

None of this brings much solace - to borrow Mr Little's expression - to the affected families. In readiness for future disasters, he is proposing a corporate manslaughter act, which "would mean organisations with statutory and other legal responsibilities such as the council and the engineer, could be prosecuted and the culpability of individuals would be addressed in sentencing".

He's assuming that the threat of incarceration will concentrate the minds of slack professionals and council officials.

Given Pike River, to say nothing of assorted sky-diving and ballooning disasters, he should have added government departmental "inspectors" and their bosses into the mix.

After all, the Pike River royal commission revealed the health and safety situation in the mine was pre-Dickensian. It was every man for himself, with health and safety requirements ignored by the Labour Department Inspectorate, by management, even by the workers who perished.

Bring in the corporate manslaughter legislation by all means, but better surely, to revive nanny state and ensure a rapid improvement in the checks designed to protect us.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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