One of New Zealand's largest transport companies has been ordered to pay $750,000 after the brakes in one of its buses failed and it careened down a gully, killing three passengers and injuring dozens more.
Ritchies Transport Holdings Ltd was sentenced today in the Waitakere District Court after earlier admitting a charge under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
The company was convicted, fined $210,000 and ordered to pay $100,000 in reparation to the families of those who died, said WorkSafe NZ, which had prosecuted the company.
Reparations to the victims of the crash, including those injured, totalled $750,000.
The charge, which carried a maximum penalty of a $1.5 million fine, was for the company's failure to ensure the health and safety of people was not put at risk from work carried out as part of the business, court documents released to the Herald read.
Specifically, the court documents read, Ritchies' failure exposed people to serious risk of injury through the dry hirage, or charter agreement without a driver, of the Nissan bus which crashed on Christmas Eve 2016 near Gisborne.
The vehicle had been hired by Talakai Aholelei, a veteran metropolitan driver for Ritchies, after he was approached by Tonga's Mailefihi Siu'ilikutapu College brass band.
The band was in New Zealand during late 2016 as part of a fundraising trip, and was travelling to perform at Gisborne's Wesleyan Methodist Church on Christmas Day.
After missing a turn, however, the bus was driven through Hawke's Bay.
But as it was heading towards Wairoa several of the more than 50 passengers smelt something burning while driving down a steep decline, court documents read.
Aholelei stopped at a service station and told the group there "was a problem with the brakes", the agreed summary of facts states.
He said they were hot and needed time to cool down before carrying on to Gisborne, but he didn't call Ritchies to report the issue or ask for help from staff at the service station.
"After passing through some relatively flat terrain, the bus headed up over the Wharerata Hill," the summary reads.
"As the bus descended down the Wharerata Hills, the brakes on the bus started to fail and Mr Aholelei struggled to slow the bus down."
The Herald understands that at the sentencing hearing the judge noted in response to submissions that she accepted that there were no mechanical faults with the bus at the time of hire.
Aholelei did not heed the warning signs to use a low gear and lost control of the bus, which slid out sideways, rolled over on to its side and plunged down a steep gully.
The diver and nine other passengers fell through the glass windows and on to the road during the crash, court documents read.
Eleven-year-old Sione Taumalolo, and Talita Moimoi (Fafita), 33, were killed.
The band's head tutor Leotisia Malakai, 55, died a few days later of head and internal injuries.
Tevita Lokotui, a prefect at the college who played tuba in the school band, also lost his left leg at the knee.
"I remember waking up in the bus after the crash, I managed to cut myself out ... and I was just sitting there by a tree in shock," Radio NZ reported he said during the two-part sentencing hearing.
"I was staring up into space just trying to recollect what had happened. I realised ... when I looked at my leg that it had been damaged."
Lokotui said he had dreams for the future which could no longer be pursued - especially his love for rugby.
Several others were seriously injured.
Aholelei was prosecuted by police and following an investigation by WorkSafe Ritchies was also charged in December 2017, just days before the one-year anniversary of the crash, the Herald first reported.
Court documents show while Ritchies had documentation about the maintenance and inspections of its fleet, and a planned maintenance programme, it had "no separate documentation relating to procedures or mechanical inspections of vehicles being dry hired".
The bus which crashed was also hired out "without having its 5000km service, which was overdue by 226km", court documents read.
It also did not have any other back up mechanical inspection before it departed for Gisborne.
Ritchies admitted it breached the Health and Safety at Work Act by failing to verify the bus was in a safe and compliant condition before it was hired. It had also failed to provide dry hire drivers with adequate information, including clear instructions on what to do if a fault developed.
Since the crash, court documents read, Ritchies has developed and documented a revised procedure for the dry hiring of vehicles.
In a statement after the sentencing hearing, WorkSafe's chief inspector of investigations Hayden Mander said: "Ritchies should have ensured that there was an adequate and effective safe system of work so that arrangements for the hire of buses were safe and suitable.
Mander said investigations found Ritchies had not serviced the bus - which was overdue for a 5000 km service - or carried out any other back up mechanical inspection before it departed from the depot.
Glenn Ritchie, a director of Ritchies, said in a statement after sentencing the company has great sympathy for the Tongan families and communities affected.
He said the procedures for hiring out buses and coaches could have been more robust.
"We do accept that not having the correct rental hire agreement requiring what a driver should do in the event of a break down or repair was a technical failure which is regrettable and should have been better. Accordingly, Ritchies has since reviewed its hire agreement process which is now more robust.
"We learnt from this incident how to improve our dry hire agreements so that hopefully drivers in the future are reminded on paper of what they are all repeatedly trained to do and how to respond to minimise the impact on our passengers, customers and communities."
Aholelei, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to three charges of careless driving causing death and 27 of careless driving causing injury.
He was sentenced to five and a half months' home detention in January last year.
Aholelei was also disqualified from driving from two years, and ordered to pay $36,000 in emotional harm reparations.
Judge June Jelas said the driver had expressed deep remorse over the crash.
"If you had the power you would turn back the clock."
Ritchies has some 1200 buses as part of its fleet across New Zealand, which are often used for contract services, including with schools and Auckland Council.