Pike families furious over compo deal
JOELLE DALY, NEIL REID AND DEIDRE MUSSEN
It's not over, say fuming Pike River families as they demand justice for their dead, and not a ''blood money'' pay off.
Twelve health and safety charges laid against Pike River mine boss Peter Whittall were today dropped in Christchurch District Court, where it was announced there would be a $3.41 million payment to the families of the 29 men who died, and the two survivors.
Whittall had proposed voluntary payments on behalf of Pike directors and officers be made, if charges against him related to the November 2010 explosions were dropped.
Whittall's lawyer, Stacey Shortall, flatly rejected suggestions the offer constituted "blood money".
"Fundamental flaws" in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment case led to charges being dismissed, she said.
His move did nothing to appease the families, who angrily decried the payments, vowing to take civil action in search of justice for those who perished at Pike River, where their bodies still lie.
''Compensation ... what a joke ... that is blood money ... that is to clear his [Whittall's] conscience,'' a furious Anna Osborne, whose husband Milton, 54, was killed in the tragedy, said.
''The biggest slap in the face is that it is not coming out of Peter Whittall's pocket, it is coming out of the insurers' pocket. And I am damned sure it is because a four month court case in Wellington is going to cost more than the $3 million payout the insurance company is going to make.
"It is a win-win for Peter Whittall to come off looking like the good guy, and the insurance company that doesn't have to pay more than $3 million for a court case that is going to cost God knows."
Osborne also criticised Whittall's offer to come and meet with families.
''What pisses me off is that he has not had his day in court. He has not had to stand in the dock and look the families in the eye and either apologise or explain what has happened,'' she said.
''That is bulls*** ... that is absolute bulls*** ... so he can feel better. What about the friggin' families who have had to live with this for three years. The only thing that will make me feel better now is for my man's body to come out of that mine.''
Family members of the 29 miners and contractors who died at Pike River were informed of the decision on Wednesday night.
''Where is the justice? Where is the justice for not only the families of the 29, but the 29 men that died?,'' she said.
"Justice just wasn't served today for the families,'' spokesman Bernie Monk said outside the court. His son Michael Monk died in the blast.
"We've always said this disaster made a laughing stock of mining, and the justice system, now, is in the same place."
Monk said he would "never meet with Peter Whittall", and most of the families felt the same.
"He expects us to come running to him when he snaps his fingers. Well that's not going to happen from Bernie Monk."
Carol Rose, who lost her son Stuart Mudge, said there had already been some talk about some families wanting to refuse the $110,000 donation.
Whittall did not attend court. Nor did he come to the door, when Fairfax Media visited his Wellington home after the decision was announced.
Lorraine Low, sister of Pike River victim Peter Rodger, said it was a "horrible'' outcome.
"We just want someone to put their hand up and say sorry. Peter Whittall and the directors doing this now, it's just rubbish. It's just a lovely way of making them look great. It's unjust and unfair."
She wanted accountability and, above all, to get the dead men out of the mine.
Sonya Rockhouse said she had trusted someone would be held accountable.
She supported taking civil action."It's not just Peter Whittall, there's a whole heap of people that should be held accountable for it," she said.
Rockhouse lost her son Ben in the mine, but another son Daniel escaped.
"No amount of money is going to bring my son back is it, or any of the others."
She did not want to hear Whittall's condolences. "What's he going to say to us that will make things better? Nothing. Absolutely nothing."
PAYMENT OFFER DEFENDED
Shortall today said any suggestion that the payment offer from the Pike directors was in return for the charges being dropped was ''absolutely wrong.''
She said Judge Farish also addressed the point in court today that they were two distinct events.
''The payment is from money that would have been used to defend the case and won't be needed to be used any more,'' Shortall said.
A cheque for $3.41 million was handed over to Christchurch District Court today. It was understood the money was from insurance covering the mining company's directors and officers for legal liabilities.
Whittall had no plans to speak publically at this stage, Shortall said.
''Peter is choosing not to make any comment because he doesn't want to do anything that will cause any further anguish to the families.''
Instead, he and three other directors had offered to privately meet Pike families in Greymouth next week. Other directors had also been asked to attend.
''He thinks that is the appropriate forum to speak with the families.''
No response had been received from families yet over their offer to meet.
Whittall, former Pike chairman John Dow and former directors Ray Meyer and Stuart Nattrass released a written statement via their lawyers, Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, about today's decision.
''As details of the prosecution case were made available over a lengthy period, fundamental deficiencies and flaws in the case were identified. It is Mr Whittall's view that these have led to the dismissal of the charges.
''Establishing the charges against Mr Whittall individually was always going to be considerably more difficult than sheeting home collective responsibility to the company.''
Whittall had always denied the charges.
''Our clients wish to reiterate their heartfelt sympathy to the families and friends of those men who lost their lives in the Pike River coal mine in November 2010. Not a day passes without them reflecting on the loss that many have been forced to suffer.''
West-Coast Tasman MP Damien O'Connor said while Labour was pleased the families would receive compensation, ''it was never about the money," he said.
"The families have said they want justice more than money and this tragedy will have no end until justice is seen to be done. This looks like a closed-door deal which again denies the grieving families justice and it is understandable they are furious with what looks like a stitch-up."
Labour Party justice and labour spokesman Andrew Little said the decision exposed the inadequacies of the law around corporate liability.
"It should be the courts that decide whether a person has broken the law, not some backroom deal between lawyers.
"It beggars belief that 29 men are lying dead in a coal mine which the Royal Commission found was the subject of some of this country's worst health and safety failures, and not a single person has been called to account."
Labour Minister Simon Bridges refused to comment on the settlement.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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