A District Court judge has opened the door to compensation for the 29 families of the Pike River Mine disaster, after finding a causative link between the health and safety failings of the coal company and the death of the youngest victim.
Josef Dunbar, 17, died on his first day at work.
He was one of three employees of VLI, a subsidiary of Sydney-based Valley Longwall International, who lost their lives down the mine on November 19, 2010. Josh Ufer, 25, and Ben Rockhouse, 21, were the other VLI employees.
Last October, VLI was fined $46,800 after admitting three breaches of the Health and Safety Act, but their lawyer successfully argued that the company had a contractual agreement with Pike River Coal Ltd (in receivership) and it was up to the mining company, not its contractor, to ensure that the safety checks were made.
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Judge Jane Farish agreed and ruled then that the families therefore could not submit victim impact reports or be entitled to reparation payments from VLI.
However, the case against Pike River Coal is different.
Referring again specifically to Mr Dunbar, Judge Farish said in her judgment, released in full last night, that the prosecution had relied on a failure to inspect its ventilation control devices, and there were inadequate systems in place to record and audit ventilation control devices.
"I have already found that the company breached its obligations in this regard in a fundamental way. In my view, in relation to Mr Dunbar, the company also failed in a number of other respects," the judge said.
"Of particular relevance in relation to Mr Dunbar, I find that the inadequate monitoring of the gas recording devices, the inadequacies of ensuring or mitigating the risk of ignition sources ... as being significant breaches that were causative of the explosion and hence Mr Dunbar's death. Therefore, Mr Dunbar and his family members are victims as defined in section four of the Victims Rights Act 2002."
A lawyer for the Pike River families, Colin Smith, said that decision had opened the door for all other victims' families.
"It's very, very important. All families can now file victim impact reports and be liable for reparations, because the judge has established that there was a causative link between the failings of the company and the resulting explosion," Mr Smith said.