Reparation but no revenge

It’s easy to understand why the families of the men who perished in the Pike River mine are angry.

Anger is part of grief and it must be particularly difficult to deal with when they know the deaths should have been avoidable.

Their anger has been refuelled by the announcement that 12 health and safety charges laid against Pike River mine boss Peter Whittall were have been dropped.

The two survivors and families of those who died will share $3.4 million in reparation.

They were asking for that from the government but now they’re angry that it’s coming from an insurance company.

They’re also angry that they’re not getting justice.

It’s understandable they can’t see through their grief to the logic of not pursuing a case which had little chance of success.

Crown lawyer Mark Zarifeh told Christchurch District Court on Thursday that much of the evidence gathered by the department would have been inadmissible, due to many witnesses being overseas and not making themselves available to be cross-examined. Because they are overseas, it would not have been possible to require them to attend the trial.

Mr Zarifeh said a trial lasting 16 to 20 weeks in Wellington would also be very expensive and not the best use of limited resources.

Mr Whittall and other directors and officers of Pike River Coal have offered to make a voluntary compensation payment of $3.4 million to the families of the victims and two men who survived the blast, about $110,000 each. It is money from the directors’ own insurance that would have been spent on a defence.

The lawyer representing Pike River families told Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint programme the chances of getting the decision not to prosecute Mr Whittall reversed are next to zero. Nick Davidson says he finds it appalling that no-one has been found responsible and the case has disintegrated over the passage of time. . . .

Its’ understandable that the families feel this is unjust and unfair.

They wanted someone to be held responsible and feel that the findings of the Royal Commission, which laid blame at several doors, was not enough.

But wasting millions of dollars and several months on court action that was likely to fail wouldn’t result in justice or fairness either.

There’s talk of further litigation which would simply waste more time and money.

The families have got the reparation they sought. They haven’t got revenge but there’s no guarantee a court would deliver that anyway.

They haven’t got what they wanted but they have got some money.

It won’t bring their men back nor compensate for their loss.

But it will make their lives a little easier and if they can get over their anger, they will come to understand that they’ll only compound the tragedy of their men’s deaths if they don’t make the most of the lives and opportunities, denied to those who died, but there ahead of those who remain.

This might be a little less difficult if unions and politicians would stop pouring petrol on the fire for their own, political ends.

Opposition MPs have condemned the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s decision to drop charges against former Pike River boss Peter Whittall.

They say a decision in the case should have been decided in court not be left up to some “back-room deal between lawyers” to decide whether someone was guilty or not. . .

Whittall’s lawyer Stacey Shortall said said any suggestion the payment offer from the Pike directors was in return for the charges being dropped was “absolutely wrong”.

In court, Judge Jane Farish stressed to media there had been no back-room deal.

But Opposition MPs and the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) argue otherwise . . .

The families’ anger is the normal and natural reaction to their loss.

The unions’ and politicians’ anger is merely fuelling the flames for their own ends.

14 Responses to Reparation but no revenge

  1. Molly says:

    ” They haven’t got revenge but there’s no guarantee a court would deliver that anyway.”
    You make a very arrogant assumption that revenge is their primary motive. You don’t mention at all the possibility that they wish to have the judicial system uncover and record accountability – and most importantly – use this process to ensure that other families are not burdened with this kind of loss.

    “But it will make their lives a little easier and if they can get over their anger, they will come to understand that they’ll only compound the tragedy of their men’s deaths if they don’t make the most of the lives and opportunities, denied to those who died, but there ahead of those who remain.”
    You cannot speak for these families – you can only speak for yourself – and your view of human nature is limited if you think that they are consumed by anger, which is probably only one of a myriad of emotions that they have and possess. Like us all.

    “This might be a little less difficult if unions and politicians would stop pouring petrol on the fire for their own, political ends.”
    Given that unions are there to advocate for the safety of workers in business and industry – it is naive of you to suggest they would not be affronted by this failure of industry to regulate itself, compounded by the failure of the justice system to hold them to account.


  2. homepaddock says:

    Molly, both my sons died. They had brain disorders which is very different from the deaths of these men but it does mean I have personal experience of grief and the anger that is part of it.

    The Royal Commission report is a record of accountability and changes made as a result of its findings should ensure a tragedy like this never happens again.

    A court case which is very unlikely to succeed wouldn’t give accountability nor do anything to improved industry regulation.

    In this morning’s ODT

    ” The decision to drop charges against former Pike River Coal boss Peter Whittall would not have been taken ”lightly”, a University of Otago law professor says.

    Prof Kevin Dawkins said it was ”unhelpful” to characterise a $3.41 million payout to the families and survivors of the 2010 disaster which killed 29 men as ”blood money”. . . .

    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 successful prosecution was ”extremely low” and the case might never have reached trial. . .

    Prof Dawkins said he believed the Crown was faced with a ”difficult choice” and its final decision was a ”pragmatic” one, made in ”good faith”.”

    You have to weigh two principal factors. There is the public interest, which probably overwhelmingly pointed towards prosecution, and then there was the sufficiency of evidence.”

    If the decision is made that even though the public interest is predominant there would be insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction then [going to trial is] a futile exercise,” he said.

    The fact many of the 92 witnesses were not willing to give evidence, and the likelihood the trial would descend into a ”technical exchanges between experts” could have made convicting Whittall a difficult prospect.”

    The alternative scenario would be that [if] the Crown proceeded, it might have got some convictions, it may have got none, in which case he wouldn’t have been liable to any sentence, including a fine,” he said.

    If this was the outcome, the victims’ families would have been ”equally as baffled and disappointed as the decision taken today – perhaps even more so”.”

    I suppose families wanted their day in court, which is completely understandable, but I think it’s unhelpful really to describe the culmination of this case as the payment of blood money,” Prof Dawkins said.

    Paying compensation meant that ”in a sense” Whittall and the directors of the company had ”been held to account”.


  3. Dave Kennedy says:

    The decision was a pragmatic one and not necessarily a fair one. For the families involved they have had to suffer through an appalling journey where those responsible refused to admit fault and Whittall himself was initially treated as a hero. They had to endure accusations that it was the miners slack attitudes that contributed to the disaster when it has later been revealed that experienced miners left due to safety concerns and numerous complaints were ignored. The miners were killed because the management deliberately and knowingly ignored basic safety to cut costs.

    Ordinary New Zealanders are seeing two lots of rules where ordinary working people pay for the mistakes of their employers by losing their jobs, suffering injury or even dying (forestry/coal miners), while the bosses walk away seemingly unscathed or with golden handshakes. Don Elder earned enough as Solid Energy boss to retire 20 times over ($10 million) and when the company he mismanaged fell over he ended up on gardening leave on full pay. The West Coast coal mining families lost jobs and financial security and had their lives seriously affected because of Elder’s mismanagement.

    Peter Whittall’s mistakes have been covered by insurance and he is still claiming innocence. To rub salt into the wounds of the miners’ families he is still able to work in the mining industry and is advertising himself as a mining consultant.

    This isn’t about revenge it is about human dignity and fairness. $3 million has been offered for all of the families and to put this in perspective it is less than a third of Don Elder’s earnings as a failed CEO.


  4. jabba says:

    when you are in charge of a any work site be it a mine or lollie shop, someone is responsible for all situations that occur. I find this pretty poor when the “leaders” hide from their responsibilites after the deaths of so many people .. shame on them all.


  5. Armchair Critic says:

    We should all be furious about this, because it should not be part of our culture that we accept that people can go to work and not come back due to the failings of our bosses.
    Your suggestion that this is about revenge indicates you’ve completely misread this, Ele. Surely it’s a basic principle that when someone does something really wrong, they should be punished? That being the case, how can it be that 29 people went to work one day, and died in entirely avoidable circumstances, and no one is held to account? How does that not offend anyone’s sense of right and wrong?
    The suggestion that it’s OK because some reparation was paid is also facile, because for many people there is more to life than money.


  6. homepaddock says:

    This was a tragedy. It resulted from a lot of things going wrong for which people should be held to account.

    But pursuing a case with little chance of success will not do that.

    I didn’t say it’s okay reparation is being paid and I did say it won’t compensate for the loss of life.


  7. Dave Kennedy says:

    “The families have got the reparation they sought. They haven’t got revenge…”

    “This might be a little less difficult if unions and politicians would stop pouring petrol on the fire for their own, political ends.”

    Ele there are a number of jarring statements in your post which demonstrate a lack of understanding of the issues and the intent of those wanting fairness and justice (not revenge).

    After 29 totally avoidable deaths, when miners were sent daily into an environment that mine managers knew was extremely unsafe, not one individual is being held to account. Even the Government has washed its hands of any responsibility for removing the regulations and controls that once existed.

    The miners families endured accusations that their loved ones were responsible for their own deaths and when the inquiry clearly found that it was deliberate decisions of the mine management and weak health and safety regulations that were the real cause, it is galling that neither accepts responsibility. It is not about money, it is not about revenge, it is about fairness and those responsible being held to account.


  8. homepaddock says:

    The deaths were avoidable. What’s happened since isn’t fair.

    But continuing with a case which was almost certain to fail wouldn’t make anything right nor would it hold anyone to account.


  9. Dave Kennedy says:

    You may be right about the case not being practical to continue with but I found how you expressed that view offensive, Elle. You claimed that the families wanted revenge and that the unions are politically motivated with their concerns. Both I know to be incorrect and insensitive.

    I also found the Government’s response callous, it is not about the money but the denial and reluctance to accept responsibility.

    Your suggestion of just taking the money and moving on would be hard to swallow for those involved. The culture that caused Pike River still exists in some industries (forestry) and there has to be some way of ensuring those responsible for work site deaths and injuries are accountable.


  10. homepaddock says:

    I can see why you’ve taken the post this way. I was writing with radio interviews (not online) I heard yesterday evening in mind. They were expressing a lot of anger (which is understandable) and at least a couple mentioned revenge but that wasn’t clear in the post.

    But I stand by the comments about political motivation from some.


  11. TraceyS says:

    Sadly, Ele, you are right. Things that are truthful are sometimes also raw, that’s just the way life is. I wonder if softening the truth in such situations is wise.

    People commenting here, including me, have touched on subjects that would have been raw for you and you have not complained. I guess because you are made tough from experience. The rest of us might not understand that because few of us will have known the grief you know. I certainly have not. Not yet anyway. But for those who have there’s a limit to raw, I think, where raw cannot get any rawer no matter what people say to you, however insensitive…

    My Mum’s cousin lost a son in the Pike tragedy. I met him only once. He was quiet and gentle.

    When I think about the loss it makes me determined to protect those whose lives I can protect including my husband and in all likelihood, my son too one day. It’s not always easy. There will always be some of the same people who resist these efforts and I worry every day.


  12. I doubt if Whittall would receive a fair trial either civil or criminal, there is a mob mentality at work here.


  13. Lorraine Lowe says:

    This was a travesty of justice and will remain so. Politics have played a HUGE part in this and will continue to do so. People need to be held accountable and it starts at the top – government and then downwards. There are things that the general public is not aware of and so it makes comments a little frustrating to say the least, but that is no-one’s fault. No-one was EVER after money. Everyone was and still is after JUSTICE. For all of us, it matters not where we die, but that how we die is investigated honestly and with integrity. It is right that where possible (and it IS possible in this case, despite what people would have you believe), bodies or remains be recovered and returned to their loved ones and their home lands. There were many who died in this mine that had no wish to stay past Christmas that year, and in fact, had already walked out out once but were persuaded to stay. Loyalty and caring is part and parcel of the job for the men who work it. Pity it does not extend to those who run it.


  14. rodneywienand says:

    Apart from the disaster being a huge cost in terms of the loss of life, it has been a huge travesty of justice. The legal teams and so called professionals have blurred the issues and the judiciary has made a decision without consultation and without even attempting to uphold the law. This incident was totally preventable and was not a by any stretch of the imagination a slight oversight. Twenty nine people lost their lives due to gross incompetence of the highest degree. By not prosecuting, what message is being sent? Are we saying education, experience, certificates of competency and membership of professional institutions are worthless or that it’s acceptable to have a poor safety culture on the mine and a pound of flesh for a ton of a mineral is a fair exchange? Third world countries would have prosecuted and got a conviction from a less serious incident. It’s also interesting to note that third world countries would have attempted a rescue as well as its an unwritten law to do as much as is humanly possible to remove trapped mineworkers. This has nothing to do with retribution but rather upholding the law which some seem to dismiss as being a tad to inconvenient.

    Management at Pike from the directors down to the Superintendent level should be prosecuted. This was not the first mine on which they worked so they were aware of what should happen, most of them would have passed a test on their understanding of the mining regulations and most would belong to one or more professional institution. If the company does not have the finances to mine safely they should terminate mining operations. And Management, the people with the knowledge and power, should resign from their positions if that is the case as no one can force a person to breach regulations or work in an unsafe working environment.
    The judiciary in New Zealand will carry this stain with them till the end of time.
    My thoughts are with the poor families of the deceased miners. They have been put through hell with the unprofessional handing of the incident from the onset. Sadly there will be more families who will suffer the same loss and pain in future as companies are a little bit more equal in the eyes of the law.


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