Matthew Theunissen

Matthew Theunissen is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Broken back boat ride: 'My life has changed forever'

An Auckland woman and her best friend Amanda Lee suffered broken backs during a trip to the Hole In The Rock on the Excitor III in January last year. File photo / Jodi Fraser
An Auckland woman and her best friend Amanda Lee suffered broken backs during a trip to the Hole In The Rock on the Excitor III in January last year. File photo / Jodi Fraser

Petulia Patey says her life has changed forever since she broke her back during a holiday jetboat trip in the Bay of Islands last year.

InterCity Group was today ordered to pay $270,000 - including $60,000 to Mrs Patey - after three women broke their backs in two separate incidents in January and March.

The company earlier pleaded guilty to two charges of failing to take all practical steps to ensure their employees' actions did not harm anyone.

Mrs Patey and her best friend Amanda Lee suffered compression fractures to their vertebrae when the boat, the Excitor III, hit two big waves, causing the women to become airborne and slam into the seat.

The second charge relates to an incident two months later that left Brisbane health worker Jan Phillips with broken vertebrae.

Speaking outside the court, Mrs Patey said her life would never be the same due to the pain in her lower back.

"My life is very different to what it used to be. It's even affected my work and my surgeon has recommended that I look at a different career path - I work as a professional in the education sector and that involves lots of meetings and I can't sit longer than 20 minutes,'' she said.

"It's chronic pain ... and that's why I think the reparation was as much as it was because the ongoing cost will be for the rest of my life.''

In Auckland District Court today, Judge Phil Gittos ordered the company pay Mrs Lee and Ms Phillips $45,000 and Mrs Patey - whose injuries were the most severe - $60,000.

He also ordered it to pay fines of $50,000 for the first incident and $70,000 for the second.

Mrs Patey last month told the court she had been instructed to sit in the back of the boat before it hit two big waves. She became airborne on both occasions and suffered a piercing pain in her back.

"The pain was like nothing I had experienced before,'' she said.

She spent the next four months lying down and has been told she is likely to suffer pain for the rest of her life.

Mrs Lee, who was visiting from London for the wedding of Mrs Patey's daughter, said the trauma and emotional toll resulting from the incident had been "devastating''.

In Ms Phillips' statement, which was also read to the court last month, she said when she took the boat ride she had every reason to believe it was safe.

"It seems the company had every opportunity to rectify previous problems on this boat and did not do so, choosing to risk major harm to customers like myself for profit.''

Judge Gittos criticised the company's failure to act upon the skipper's concern that the Excitor III was "riding hard and flat''.

There were also not safety belts for each seat, and the boat was being driven in a way which did not comply with the company's own safety manual.

The skipper had either "turned a blind eye'' to this or was not aware of its own safety guidelines, Judge Gittos said.

The passengers had also not been informed of the risks involved, and there had been no specific warning about the history of spinal injury resulting from the activity.

Judge Gittos acknowledged the tension between between the company's need to provide a fast and thrilling ride and safety requirements.

He gave it credit for its cooperation and guilty pleas.

Maritime New Zealand, which laid the charges, said in a statement the sentence was a serious reminder to all operators of high-speed vessels that they must continually be evaluating and adapting their safety systems.

"Despite at least four similar incidents between January and March 2011, including the two serious injury incidents investigated by MNZ, the company did not stop its operation to investigate what might be causing people to get hurt,'' said Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) investigator Bruce McLaren.

"In addition, even though the Excitor III was a new vessel, the company did not respond to concerns raised by passengers and one of its own skippers about the movement of the vessel. And, despite having clear knowledge of the kind of forces the vessel would be subject to, it did not take adequate steps to ensure its drivers were aware of driving the vessel appropriately to these conditions.''

- APNZ

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