The forestry contractor acquitted of the manslaughter of a young worker crushed to death by a falling tree still faces sentence for breaching health and safety legislation.

In a ground-breaking court case, Paul Robert Burr, 47, was found not guilty of the manslaughter of 20-year-old Lincoln Kidd on a Horowhenua forestry block in December 2013.

It was the first time a workplace incident has been subject to a manslaughter charge.

Lincoln Kidd was killed in a forestry accident in Horowhenua. Photo / Horowhenua Chronicle
Lincoln Kidd was killed in a forestry accident in Horowhenua. Photo / Horowhenua Chronicle

Burr, Mr Kidd's boss, was operating a felling machine and did not realise the young worker was standing close to him when a tree fell in an unexpected direction.

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WorkSafe NZ also laid a charge under health and safety laws alleging Burr and his company failed to keep Mr Kidd safe at work.

After hearing three weeks of evidence in the High Court at Palmerston North, the 11-member jury took a little over two hours to deliver unanimous not guilty verdicts.

These were greeted with sobs from the public gallery, from which two of Mr Kidd's family made a hasty and tearful retreat. Burr meanwhile looked relieved.

The verdicts also saw the lifting of suppression orders covering a further health and safety charge both Burr and his company had previously admitted over the death.

They will be sentenced next month but it could be an academic exercise for Burr's company, which is in liquidation.

The man who hired Burr to work on the forestry block, Timothy Hunt, also admitted that charge and has already been sentenced.

Members of Mr Kidd's family didn't want to comment after the verdicts, while WorkSafe NZ issued a short statement saying only that the manslaughter charge was laid by police.

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly, who has championed the need for legislative reform over workplace safety, told NZME News Service before the trial a that not guilty verdict would not be welcomed.

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"We're really disappointed because we feel there was insufficient care taken to protect Lincoln at work and there was an element to this employer's behaviour that was simply not taking all practicable steps [to keep him safe]."

Earlier today, Justice Brendan Brown spent two hours summing the case up for the 11-member jury.

He said Mr Kidd was standing 7m away from Burr as the tree was felled.

The Crown argued Burr broke the a "cardinal rule" of forestry in not observing the two-tree lengths rule, which states nobody can be within that distance of a tree being chopped down.

But the Crown accepts Burr didn't know Mr Kidd was so close to him, thinking he had left the felling area."[Prosecutor Ben Vanderkolk] suggested there has been a series of failures, oversights and assumptions at the site - and the focus has been on the wrong issue, that is production over safety," Justice Brown said.

He said Mr Vanderkolk identified failures of the company to take all necessary steps to ensure its employees' safety.

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They included insufficient high-visibility clothing, lack of radio communication, not following the two-tree rule and Burr's failure to check for workers in the area after a move from mechanical felling to manual and finally back to mechanical.

On the manslaughter charge, Mr Vanderkolk had said Burr's actions were not a "simple" or "trifling" departure from the standard of care expected, but a "major" one.

"He argued that what elevated the conduct in question to a 'major departure' was ill-discipline."

Defence lawyer Jonathan Temm criticised both the state of evidence offered by the Crown and the WorkSafe NZ investigation.

"He submitted that what happened here was an accident and it was time to close the page," Justice Brown said.

Mr Temm also argued that because Burr didn't know where Mr Kidd was at the time of the fatal felling, his company didn't either, so he could not be guilty of the health and safety charge.

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"If Lincoln Kidd was there behind the Volvo [felling machine] of his own volition, that's doing something completely unexpected then how could Mr Burr - that is the company - know that," the judge said of Mr Temm's argument.

Burr didn't give evidence at the trial, but Justice Brown told the jury not to read anything negative into that.

The judge took the jury through the legal aspects of the case, saying he disagreed with some of the defence's comments on the health and safety charge.

Justice Brown also mentioned some of the unknowns, such as how long Mr Kidd was behind the felling machine and what he was doing there.