Electrician given home detention after builder fatally shocked

Nelson builder Craig Johnston died in March 2020 as a result of an electric shock. Inset Steve...
Nelson builder Craig Johnston died in March 2020 as a result of an electric shock. Inset Steve Burton
The partner of a builder who died while working on a woman’s kitchen said he was taken from her by an electrician’s incompetence.

That electrician, Stephen (Steve) Burton, was today sentenced to eight months’ home detention and ordered to pay a total of $150,000 in reparation in a moving, angry and sometimes bitter hearing in the Nelson District Court.

Burton was convicted last November on a charge related to work he did on a central Nelson property in February 2020, following a judge-alone trial. Builder Craig Johnston died from an electric shock while working at the property weeks after Burton was working there.

On the afternoon of March 19, 2020, 53-year-old Johnston was found motionless on the floor by the homeowner who had hired him to build a casing around a newly installed rangehood above the cooktop.

One of his shoes had come off, both hands were clenched and his left ring fingernail was ripped off.

The rangehood was hanging partially from the bulkhead.

He was later found to have died of cardiac arrhythmia, triggered by an electric shock after he had touched the rangehood that was "enlivened" by an electrical fault.

His partner Ruth McAlpine today condemned Burton’s actions in a lengthy victim impact statement read in court, while her son Jamie Johnston spoke of how his future has been shattered by the loss of his dad.

At one point McAlpine looked across the courtroom at Burton, who sat in the dock, and said "shame on you", that she never wanted to hear his voice or his lies again and that the thought of being near him "repulsed" her.

McAlpine spoke of the soulmate she had lost, the funny guy with the cheeky laugh who had supported her through a dark time in her life when she endured cancer diagnosis and treatment.

"We did a lot of travelling and had plans to do more but the person sitting over there has taken the future we had planned."

She had lost not only her life partner but the family’s main provider.

"We were in a fight for survival without Craig."

She told NZME earlier of the added burden of coping with his death just before the country went into Covid-related lockdown.

Nelson builder Craig Johnston died in March 2020 as a result of an electric shock. Photo: Ruth...
Nelson builder Craig Johnston died in March 2020 as a result of an electric shock. Photo: Ruth McAlpine
McAlpine said her heart broke for their son, who at the time had been training to be an electrician, and had been unable to complete the apprenticeship.

Jamie Johnston said he remembered his father’s last words as he walked out the door to work that day four years ago.

"I hope you have a good day. Little did I know those were the last words I would ever hear him say."

He said the death of his father, who was well known and well respected as a tradesman, had had a wider impact than family and friends.

"I’ve lost not only my father but my best friend," Johnston said in front of a courtroom packed with family, friends and supporters for the victims and others for Burton.

"My father died a horrible death - a fate he never deserved," Johnston said.

The court also heard today of the loss faced by Burton through his actions described by counsel for the prosecutor, Worksafe NZ, as "one of the most serious cases of its kind".

Dennis Dow said the failure was not only in the way the work was carried out and the failure to test it, but also Burton’s lack of acknowledgement of wrongdoing.

Burton had denied he was at fault and said during the trial he was competent and reliable, that he’d done all the required testing and that the installation was safe to use.

His lawyer Michael Vesty said that until now he’d had a clean record, and had been a respected figure in Nelson for his work in the community, but faced a bleak future with little scope of recovering financially.

He said Burton, who would soon turn 61, had four adult children, 14 grandchildren, no disciplinary record, and was facing the end of his business in which his son had been employed but no longer was.

"These submissions are not meant to engender sympathy but the court can take into account these past four years have been traumatic."

Nelson electrician Stephen Burton. Photo: Tracy Neal
Nelson electrician Stephen Burton. Photo: Tracy Neal
Vesty said Burton knew Johnston personally, they shared a mutual respect and referred each others’ work.

"This has been a fall from grace that will continue," Vesty said.

When Burton was convicted last year Judge David Ruth found it "incomprehensible" that a man lost his life after the electrician had failed to carry out a simple task to remove a wall switch to check the wiring.

Today Judge Ruth said the charges Burton faced did not suggest he had done anything fraudulent, and that Johnston’s death was not able to be at the forefront of sentencing as a matter of law, despite how difficult that might be for the victims.

Sentencing was based on what Burton had been found guilty of - one of two charges brought by WorkSafe New Zealand against him, in that he failed to take action knowing it was reasonably likely to cause serious harm to any person or significant property damage, and failed to prevent so far as reasonably practicable serious harm or significant property damage.

No verdict was required for a second, alternative charge - negligently doing an electrical installation in a manner that was dangerous to life - because of the finding on the first charge.

"Nothing I can do here will come anywhere near making up for the death of a loved one," Judge Ruth said.

He said that while there were complexities involved in Burton’s task of installing a new rangehood and fan, if he had carried out the "very simple act" of removing a wall switch unit to check wiring Johnston’s death might have been avoided.

Judge Ruth reiterated that Burton’s initial failure to remove a wall plate had been pivotal to what happened. If he had done that he might have seen the earth wire was connected in a way that it was instead operating as a live wire.

He also repeated that a suggestion that some unknown person for unknown reasons might have reconfigured the wiring between the dates of February 27 and March 19, 2020, was "fanciful" and not supported by any evidence.

Judge Ruth also referenced Burton’s "apparently lackadaisical" attitude to bookkeeping which was a factor in the charges against him.

He said that for Burton to blame an IT program for a difference in dates over a critical work entry was in this day and age much the same as saying "The dog ate my homework".

"It’s nonsense - the documents were simply not correct," Judge Ruth said.

He said Burton’s attitude was in stark contrast to the many glowing testimonials he’s seen and he found it difficult to reconcile the "serious abdication" in responsibilities.

"It was a serious departure from standards."

Judge Ruth said the message that had to be sent was one of deterrence for others who might think they can cut corners.

He said the charge carried a maximum sentence of two years in prison and while it was possible Burton might have ended up there, it would not gain anything.

"Home detention is the appropriate outcome," Judge Ruth said.

He said a higher reparation order, as sought by WorkSafe, may be warranted but it was unlikely that Burton would be able to meet it, and it was pointless raising the victims’ expectations of receiving a higher amount when it was unlikely to be forthcoming.

Burton will have to sell his boat to meet the reparation sum ordered, broken down into emotional harm payments and reparation for consequential loss to Johnston’s partner and their son.

Of the total amount, Burton has been ordered to pay immediately the borrowed $50,000 he offered.

The remainder was to be paid upon settlement of the boat sale, with monthly instalments of $3175 until then.

 - Tracy Neal, Open Justice reporter