Hazardous building costs varsity

The University of Otago commerce building. Photo from ODT files.
The University of Otago commerce building. Photo from ODT files.
Tiles are cordoned off in the University of Otago's commerce building. Photo by Steve Jaquiery
Tiles are cordoned off in the University of Otago's commerce building. Photo by Steve Jaquiery

A guilty plea by the University of Otago in a health and safety case has led to $60,000 reparation for a woman left permanently disabled, and a promise to fix a building the Dunedin District Court heard had caused serious injury.

The court heard yesterday the university had not dealt properly with a problem that had resulted in more than 12 serious injuries in the Commerce Building over about 17 years.

Barrister Victoria Casey said documents released under the Official Information Act revealed there had been 70 complaints, and injuries included a student with a fractured jaw, a 9 year old boy taken to hospital unconscious and someone who suffered a torn liver after falling on slippery tiles. 

In June 2013, Auckland woman Katherine Casey, as part of her job with an organisation that placed American students in New Zealand universities, was at the University of Otago with an academic visiting from the United States.

While in the Commerce Building, she slipped and fell, suffering three fractures to her pelvis and one to her spine.

Victoria Casey, Katherine's sister, represented her yesterday, saying once her sister found she was not the only person who had been injured by slipping on the tiles, she felt a moral obligation to get the university to take responsibility and fix the problem.

But dealing with the university had been difficult.

''Well, the fact that it's [the resolution] nearly two and a half years after the injury says most of it,'' Ms Casey said last night.

Katherine Casey had found dealing with the university ''really frustrating and distressing'', and felt the institution had been ''just brushing her away, like she was trying to have a go''.

She was also concerned the tiles were still not properly fixed, and that the university still put down mats and cones, and taped off the worst areas when it was wet.

In a private prosecution yesterday, the university faced a Health and Safety in Employment Act charge of failing to take action to ensure the safety of the flooring for persons walking across it, knowing that failure to take such action was likely to cause serious harm to a person, from about 1996 to 2013.

Ms Casey, of Wellington, submitted her client needed to be assured the university would accept responsibility, and that the problem that caused her injury would never occur again.

Ms Casey said floor and stairway tiles in a two level open atrium were slippery when wet, and a significant hazard for those crossing the atrium floor and steps.

The university was aware of the issue, but repairs after the incidents were ineffective. When Katherine Casey fell in 2013, ambulance staff had difficulty removing her safely because the tiles were so slippery.

She was in hospital for seven days.

''She says she has a permanent disability.

''Walking, standing and sitting are still uncomfortable,'' Ms Casey said.

Surgery in October might mitigate but would not resolve the disability. Aged 59 in 2013, Katherine Casey was very fit and active, but her prospects of a healthy, active old age had vanished.

Ms Casey said costs for her sister had been $30,000, expenses required on top of ACC payments.

After submissions from counsel Allie Cunninghame, representing the university, the case was adjourned for discussion between both counsel and also university representatives.

The discussions had been ''fruitful'', Ms Cunninghame said when the hearing resumed. An agreement having been reached and found appropriate by Judge Kevin Phillips, the university then pleaded guilty.

The judge said he considered justice had been done and seen to be done. University chief operating officer John Patrick said last night several projects had been carried out in the Commerce Building over many years to try to make the atrium space more comfortable for staff, students and the public and improve its safety.

''This has included coating the tiles to improve their friction and replacing some tiles with other surfacing materials such as asphalt.

''A major refit of the building has been under consideration for a number of years and planning has recently been completed.

''Final designs will be presented to the capital development committee at their September meeting for approval and funding.''

If approved, the multimillion dollar project would enlarge the atrium, replace the atrium roof, create a new entrance at ground level from Union St, modify and/or replace the stairs, improve smoke control and fire systems installations, reconfigure some social and academic spaces, upgrade office spaces and reception areas and build a new cafe.

Victoria Casey said she was ''very pleased'' the university had agreed to fix the problem.

''Today was a great result in that the next 13 victims are not going to happen.''

The university responded last night, saying it frequently used notices and cones to warn of potential hazards. It had tried ''extremely hard'' to act in a professional and sympathetic manner towards Katherine Casey.

Additional reporting by Court Reporter.

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