Gas explosion company must pay $400,000

KILLED: Philomen Gulland, 48, died in the 2011 explosion.
KILLED: Philomen Gulland, 48, died in the 2011 explosion.

Watercare must pay more than $400,000 for the harm to its employees caused by the 2011 gas explosion in Auckland that killed a worker and cost another his legs.

The company, which is responsible for Auckland's waste and drinking water, was fined $81,000 and ordered to pay $315,000 in reparations to the victims of the blast in Onehunga on June 4, 2011.

The family of Philomen Gulland, 48, of Canada, who was killed in the explosion, was awarded a total of $100,000. Each of her children was given $40,000 to be held in a trust.

Ian Winson, who lost both his legs, was granted $40,000.

Two further Watercare employees and three contractors were awarded a total of $175,000.

"Fixing amounts of reparation in no way is an attempt to place a monetary value on a tragic loss of life, or the range of injuries suffered by survivors. That is an impossible task," Judge Rob Ronayne said in the Auckland District Court today.

However, the money went some way to recognising the pain and suffering caused by the accident, he said.

The explosion occurred when natural gas leaked into a water mains pipe which was being upgraded. The gas was ignited by contractors using a blowtorch while replacing an air valve.

Watercare employees were inspecting the pipe at the time of the blast.

The company had pleaded guilty to two charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, of failing to ensure the safety of its employees, and employees of a contractor.

Watercare failed to alert the contractors of the history of natural gas in the area, and previous leaks.

Their employees had failed to follow the company's health and safety procedures in confined spaces and in the presence of explosive gases. The company is liable for the failures of its employees.

"If those steps had been taken there probably wouldn't have been an explosion at all, and there certainly wouldn't have been any injuries," Judge Ronayne said.

The reparations were fair but could never replace the loss of life, said Gulland's mother, Margaret Penner, 80, who had travelled from Canada for the hearing.

"It's not been an easy two years, either for people who knew Philomen here in Auckland and relations. It's not been easy for us in Canada," she said.

Her grandchildren would value the money, but it was small replacement for their mother, she said.

"It's not what they would have received from their mother, but they'll make use of it," Penner said.

Watercare accepted the financial penalties and reparations of the court, chief executive Mark Ford said.

"They will, of course, never bring Philomen back. She was a very popular member of staff and she is still very much missed today," Ford said.

Watercare acknowledged the effect the accident had had on the employees and their families.

"We deeply regret the incident that led to the injuries that occurred. We continue to offer our support and offer our ongoing sympathy to our employees and their families," Ford said.

Earlier, the victims and their families had told the court of the physical and emotional damage the explosion had caused.

Penner spoke on behalf of her family.

Even after Gulland had moved to New Zealand with her New Zealand husband, she stayed in close contact with her mother, she said in a victim impact statement.

"I was very close to her, we share so much. I was her confidante as well as her mother," Penner said.

"This I will never be able to replace or forget, along with the laughter and joy that we shared," she said.

Her husband Bernard is 82 and unable to travel. Gulland's death has left him dazed with sadness.

"He has not accepted her death. He struggles with his sorrow. Bernard seems to have little desire to leave his home," Penner said.

Katherine Winson, the wife of double amputee Ian Winson, read a statement to the court describing the way the accident has destroyed the lives of their family.

Doctors told Katherine Winson her husband, an ironman and triathlete, survived only because of his health and fitness at the time. Now he is unable to participate in his former sports or the lives of his children, she said.

"He is now forced to be an observer rather than a participator. Ian grieves for the loss of his legs every time he sees other fathers playing with their children," she told the court.

"Ian had dreams of having a full and active life with his boys, which he never had with his own father.

"It is just so, so sad, being an athlete and a father with no legs," she said.

Watercare employee John "Harry" Barnett was left with significant physical injuries after this explosion.

His wife, Ann Barnett, told the court of the pressure the accident has put on their personal lives.

"The Harry I married went to work one Saturday morning, someone else came home. It is not until something like this happens that you realise how much you love someone," she said.

James Millard, a Watercare employee, was left with significant post-traumatic stress and ongoing physical injuries after the explosion.

"I have lost the ability to do the things I used to do and enjoy. I feel sad, angry, guilty for the changed person I have become," he said.

"I feel like life is a sentence for me and for the other victims."

GRIEF-STRICKEN: Margaret Penner, the mother of Philomen Gulland, addresses the media today.
SIMON DAY / Fairfax NZ
GRIEF-STRICKEN: Margaret Penner, the mother of Philomen Gulland, addresses the media today.

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