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''.
His comments come after family members of the dead men,
opposition MPs and unions yesterday decried the decision to
In the Christchurch District Court yesterday, the Crown said
that after an extensive review, it was ''not appropriate to
continue with the prosecution against Mr Whittall''.
Instead, Whittall and Pike River Coal offered a voluntary
payment on behalf of the directors and officers of the
company to the families of the men and two survivors.
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
She told the court the likelihood of a successful prosecution
was ''extremely low'' and the case might never have reached
The charges were laid by the Ministry of Business Innovation
and Employment (MBIE) under the Health and Safety in
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
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''.
The fact Whittall had been discharged - rather than the
evidence being withdrawn - meant Whittall could not be
charged again, he said.
Four former heads of Pike River Coal, including Whittall,
said in a statement yesterday the money that would have been
spent defending the case would now go to the families.
It meant $110,000 would be given to each of the families and
survivors - totalling $3.41 million. The directors -
Whittall, John Dow, Ray Meyer and Stuart Nattrass - have also
offered to meet the families.
Bernie Monk, spokesman for most of the families, vowed the
families ''won't let this lie''.
''We're going to take this further ... What really frustrates
me is that some of those mining guys who worked with our men
underground wouldn't come back to testify.
"And it's just gut-wrenching to hear that today.''
Mr Monk said he would ''never'' meet Whittall.
Anna Osborne, whose husband Milton died in the disaster, said
she was ''sick to the stomach''.
''There is no justice or accountability for the Pike 29,''
''As far as I'm concerned, it's blood money.''
Neville Rockhouse, whose youngest son, Ben (21), died in the
tragedy, called on the Government to rethink introducing
''Corporates can pretty much do what they please - that's the
message that comes out of this sorry, terrible tragedy.''
Carol Rose, whose son Stuart Mudge died in the mine, said it
was never about money for the families.
''It's about justice. It's about 29 men going to their
workplace and never coming home. They were killed; they
"It wasn't an accident. They were killed, and no-one is being
EPMU assistant national secretary Ged O'Connell said he was
''stunned into silence'' when he heard the decision.
''It's an appalling indictment on the health and safety
culture of New Zealand.''
MBIE counsel Mark Zarifeh said one of the major problems was
Of the 92 witnesses who had given a brief of evidence, 31 had
not been signed ''for one reason or another''.
Of those, 14 witnesses are outside New Zealand - living
mainly in Australia - and Crown lawyers had no powers to
summons witnesses living overseas.
Whittall's lawyer, Stacey Shortall, said his offer to meet
the families of the 29 victims was ''real, genuine [and]
Mr Whittall had made the offer in good faith, although she
said she realised there had been hostility to the idea by
some families yesterday.
Out of respect for the families, Whittall would not be giving
any interviews or releasing any public comments about his
reaction to the case being dropped, she said. -
Additional reporting from The Greymouth Star