Coal company sentenced for Pike River deaths

Bernie Monk outside Greymouth courthouse today. Photo / Greymouth Star
Bernie Monk outside Greymouth courthouse today. Photo / Greymouth Star

Pike River Coal's landmark sentence of $4.17 million in fines and reparation has been welcomed by the miners' union, but they say a law change is needed to fully hold those responsible to account.

The company was this morning sentenced in Greymouth District Court for health and safety failings that led to the deaths of 29 men.

Judge Jane Farish ordered the company to pay reparation to the grieving families and two survivors of $110,000 each - a total of $3.41m.

She also fined the company a total of $760,000 over nine charges.

Judge Farish said she could not put a value on the loss of life or compensate for psychological harm.

Victim impact statements delivered to the court yesterday by grieving families were harrowing, Judge Farish said, her voice cracking. It was clear emotional trauma had been suffered.

She awarded the families and two survivors $110,000 each, and said she was satisfied there was the means for reparation to be paid.

The company is in receivership and has indicated it has only enough money to pay $5000 to each family.

Pike River Coal was found guilty in April on nine charges laid under the Health and Safety in Employment Act in relation to the November 19, 2010 explosions which killed 29 miners.

The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, which represents miners, said the sentence was appropriate given the gravity of the offending.

But union assistant national secretary Ged O'Connell said a law change was needed to ensure those responsible for workplace deaths could be held to account.

The union has called for corporate manslaughter laws, personal liability for directors and stronger mine safety laws.

"Given the gravity of the offence and the very real impact on families, a hefty penalty and reparations was the only appropriate sentence," Mr O'Connell said.

"However, there is little justice in sentencing a shell company that is now in receivership. Families of the men who died at Pike River have every right to demand those responsible for this tragedy are held to account."

West Coast-based Green Party MP Kevin Hague said it was "a travesty of justice" that the families could end up with as little as $5000 each.

He said Pike River's $2m liability insurance cover was "totally inadequate" for a high-risk operation and the families had been left with "crumbs" after everyone else had been paid.

"Pike River directors and shareholders have escaped completely unpunished. They should have to top up the gap between the compensation awarded and the amount the company has to pay.

"This case highlights a gap in the law that means companies can limit their liability to such a degree that they pervert the law by not having sufficient funds to pay out in health and safety cases."

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment general manager of high hazards and specialist services, Brett Murray, said the sentence was the culmination of the ministry's significant investigative and legal process.

"The ministry acknowledges however that no sentence will ever adequately reflect the pain felt by the families of the Pike 29."

In emotional scenes yesterday, 20 victim impact statements were delivered to the court by grieving family members or read out aloud by lawyers - expressing relatives' despair and frustration that Pike River Coal had not taken full responsibility for the tragedy.

Ministry lawyer Mark Zarifeh yesterday called for Pike River Coal to pay massive fines and reparation of up to $125,000 for each of the dead men, labelling the tragedy the "employer-related disaster of a generation".

He submitted that the company should pay cumulative fines at or near maximum levels for all nine charges it faced, as well as reparation of $60,000-$125,000 for each bereaved family and substantial reparation for the two men who survived.

But Judge Jane Farish had questioned whether the court could order fines and reparations from Pike River Coal if it was effectively not trading, and was an "empty shell" of a company.

- APNZ

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