Kurt Bayer

Kurt Bayer is an APNZ reporter based in Christchurch.

Charges dropped against ex-Pike River boss Peter Whittall

Peter Whittall. Photo / File / NZPA/The Press
Peter Whittall. Photo / File / NZPA/The Press

Stunned anger greeted today's dropping of all charges against former Pike River Coal boss Peter Whittall over the 2010 mine disaster.

The charges were laid by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) under the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

In a shock development at the Christchurch District Court this morning, the Crown said after an extensive review it was "not appropriate to continue with the prosecution against Mr Whittall''.

Instead, Mr Whittall and Pike River Coal offered a voluntary payment on behalf of the directors and officers of the company to the families of the men and two survivors.

Judge Jane Farish made it clear the surprise turn of events was not a case of a chief executive "buying his way out of a prosecution''.

She told the court the likelihood of a prosecution was "extremely low'' and the case may never have reached trial.

In a statement from four former heads of Pike River Coal, including Mr Whittall, they said the money that would have been spent defending the case would now go to the families.

It meant $110,000 would be given to each of the families and survivors - totalling $3.41 million. The directors _ Mr Whittall, John Dow, Ray Meyer and Stuart Nattrass - have also offered to meet with the families.

Bernie Monk, spokesman for most of the families, vowed that the families "won't let this lie''.

"We're going to take this further. There's still a conviction that can be done here.

"What really frustrates me is that some of those mining guys who worked with our men underground wouldn't come back to testify. And it's just gutwrenching to hear that today.''

Mr Monk said he would "never'' meet with Peter Whittall.

Anna Osborne, who lost husband Milton, said she was ``sick to the stomach''.

"There is no justice or accountability for the Pike 29,'' she said.

"As far as I'm concerned it's blood money.''

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Neville Rockhouse, whose youngest son, Ben, 21, died in the tragedy, called on the Government to rethink introducing corporate manslaughter.

"Corporates can pretty much do what they please _ that's the message that comes out of this sorry, terrible tragedy.''

Carol Rose, whose son Stuart Mudge died in the mine, said it was never been about money for the families.

"There was talk last night about families refusing the reparation. Obviously there was only a small group of us there [in court today], so we can't make that call on behalf of other families, but that's how we feel.

"It's about justice. It's about 29 men going to their workplace and never coming home _ they were killed _ they didn't die. It wasn't an accident, they were killed, and no one is being held accountable.

Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn said the decision would come as ``a massive surprise'' to many people on the West Coast.

"Peter Whittall is obviously innocent until proven guilty but there is a system in place and he was charged and unless the reasons for the charges being dropped are absolutely water-tight, West Coasters are going to be very suspicious I think.''

Ged O'Connell, EPMU assistant national secretary, said he was ``stunned into silence'' when he heard the decision.

"It's an appalling indictment on the health and safety culture of New Zealand.''

Mark Zarifeh, counsel for MBIE said one of the major problems was ``witness availability''.

Of the 92 witnesses who had given a brief of evidence, 31 of them had not been signed "for one reason or another''.

Of those, 14 witnesses are outside New Zealand _ living predominantly in Australia _ and the Crown lawyers had no powers to summons witnesses living overseas.

Sonya Rockhouse, Ben's mother, was angered that the courts didn't have the powers to bring witnesses over from Australia ``for something as important as this''.

Mr Whittall's lawyer said his offer of a meeting with the families of the 29 victims was "real, genuine [and] heartfelt''.

Stacey Shortall said Mr Whittall had made the offer in good faith, although she said she realised there had been hostility to the idea by some families today.

Mr Whittall would not be doing any interviews or releasing any public comments about his reaction to the case being dropped, she said, out of respect for the families.

The main reasons given for not continuing with the prosecution were:

* The penalties for the charges against Mr Whittall are fine only.

* The principal offender PRCL (Pike River Coal Limited) has been convicted and fined with record fines and a very substantial order for reparation imposed.

* Mr Whittall is charged as a secondary party on the basis that he acquiesced or participated in PRCL offending.

* The Royal Commission into the Pike River mine disaster has heard extensive evidence and provided a comprehensive report on the causes of the explosion at the mine, the cause of loss of life, and the requirements of the Act or Regulations or other laws governing underground coalmining etc.

* The $3.41m reparation order.

* A prosecution requiring a 16-20 week trial in Wellington will be a "very high cost one in both financial and resource terms and best use of limited resources is an appropriate consideration".

- Additional reporting Patrice Dougan, Matthew Theunissen and Greymouth Star

- APNZ

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