Belinda Feek is a NZ Herald reporter

Sentencing over fatal tiger attack on Samantha Kudeweh to resume Friday

Hamilton Zoo curator Samantha Kudeweh. Photo / Supplied
Hamilton Zoo curator Samantha Kudeweh. Photo / Supplied

Sentencing of the Hamilton City Council over the death of its zoo curator will resume on Friday.

Mother-of-two Samantha Kudeweh died after the attack by Oz the male tiger in his enclosure at Hamilton Zoo on September 20, last year.

The council was due to be sentenced today on a charge of failing to take all practical steps to ensure the 43-year-old was not exposed to hazards arising out of working with Oz.

Judge Denise Clark heard submissions from both defence and prosecution but then adjourned proceedings as she had matters that she wanted to consider. She will deliver her findings Friday afternoon.

The council pleaded guilty over Kudeweh's death at its last appearance in June. The charge, laid by Worksafe NZ, carries a maximum fine of $250,000.

Hamilton Council CEO Richard Briggs (left) along with Hamilton Mayor Julie Hardaker front media last year at Hamilton Zoo on the day of Samantha Kudeweh's death. Photo / Nick Reed
Hamilton Council CEO Richard Briggs (left) along with Hamilton Mayor Julie Hardaker front media last year at Hamilton Zoo on the day of Samantha Kudeweh's death. Photo / Nick Reed

Worksafe prosecutor Catalijne Pille told the judge there had been a number of disagreements with defence counsel over just how much should be paid to the Kudeweh family.

She said the family were struggling financially as Richard Kudeweh had also stopped working at the zoo.

He was now considering leaving Pirongia to be closer to his family.

"Not only has he lost his partner and the mother of his children but he's also in a position where he's faced with a financial future that is slightly uncertain as outlined in the victim impact statement he's contemplating the possiblity of moving closer to his family."

Pille submitted the starting point for the fine should be about $85,000, while the emotional harm payment should be up to $110,000 as amounts had increased since the payout in 2006 after the death of a worker at Zion Wildlife Park in Whangarei.

She said the council should already have been on high alert following an incident at the zoo in 2013 where a keeper ended up inside the enclosure with the animal.

"It was an obvious hazard and should have alerted them to the fact their procedures were inadequate."

Richard Kudeweh speaks to media outside the Hamilton District Court today after the council's sentencing was postponed. Photo / Belinda Feek
Richard Kudeweh speaks to media outside the Hamilton District Court today after the council's sentencing was postponed. Photo / Belinda Feek

There should be no decrease in the culpability of the council for Kudeweh's actions on the day.

"The prosecution's case is that the defendant failed to take all practical steps to ensure that this hazard, being a tiger, was not securely locked in the gate at the time ... any actions on behalf of Mrs Kudeweh were not deliberate and were not intentional. She would have known that the male tiger Oz is extremely aggressive and he had his own standard operating procedure in how to deal with him."

James Gurnick, lawyer for the council, said the Kudeweh family had already been paid $116,000 - including $20,000 held in trust for her two children - and therefore should not have to pay any further reparation.

He accepted a fine of no more than $40,000 could be paid.

He submitted the council would be "paving the way" with its health and safety due to the irregularities currently in the industry.

He said there was conjecture in the industry whether a two-keeper system was fail-safe as a keeper was mauled by a lion at Wellington Zoo in 2006 where two keepers were working. Worksafe investigated that incident but decided not to go ahead with a prosecution.

He said the 2013 incident at Hamilton Zoo was "quite different" and was not an aggravating factor.

It was Samantha Kudeweh who investigated the 2013 incident and came to the report's conclusions which were instigated at the time, Gurnick said.

As for what happened on the day - September 20 last year - Kudeweh died, she was tasked with feeding the tigers, cheetahs, wild dogs and other carnivores at the zoo.

About 9am, she was feeding tigers Oz, and Mencari, the female, who were in separate dens.

But for some reason, she didn't shut the gates between the outside tiger enclosure and the den, meaning Oz could roam freely.

She went back to the enclosure about 10am to get food for the red pandas when Oz attacked and killed her.

Kudeweh's husband, Richard, speaking outside court in June, criticised how long the council took to admit guilt.

This afternoon he told media that he wasn't bothered by the delay and hoped it meant that the judge was taking into account all of the submissions to help her come to her decision.

- NZ Herald

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