Pike boss allowed Wellington trial

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 12:55 17/06/2013
Peter Whittall
IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ
HOSTILE COMMUNITY: Peter Whittall.

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Former Pike River Coal boss Peter Whittall has succeeded in his bid to get his trial moved from Greymouth to Wellington.

Judge Jane Farish released her reserved decision today into his application to shift his upcoming trial over alleged health and safety failures relating to the November 2010 coalmine blast that killed 29 men.

"I am satisfied it is in the interests of justice to transfer these proceedings to Wellington given the complexity and length of the trial together with Mr Whittall's personal position," she said.

Whittall's ability to defend himself in Greymouth would have been "significantly compromised" because of the trial's complexity and length coupled with difficulties with travel, Judge Farish said in her written decision.

"I am satisfied that the public interests can be met by the proceedings being streamed live from Wellington." Whittall's lawyers had previously claimed hostility from Greymouth's community plus administrative and travel problems would stop him getting a fair trial in the Greymouth District Court.

Whittall, Pike's chief executive for less than seven weeks when the mine exploded, has denied all 12 charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

The former Labour Department, now part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, alleged he failed to protect workers from harm relating to methane, strata and ventilation management, and mitigating explosion risk and impact. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of $250,000.

In March, Whittall's lawyer, Stuart Grieve, QC, told the court that during previous visits Whittall had experienced "hostile and inappropriate behaviour" from members of the public.

"It can be understood emotions are running high in Greymouth and rightly or wrongly those emotions are focused on Mr Whittall because he is the only defendant," Grieve said at the time.

He told the court it could be "physically and emotionally debilitating" for Wellington-based Whittall to spend three or four months away from his family and support.

Other shortcomings in running a complex court case in Greymouth included the huge volume of disclosure documents and expense because most of the 140 witnesses were not from the West Coast, he said.

However, the ministry's lawyer, Brent Stanaway, QC, said in March that the families of the 29 men killed had a right to have the case heard in their own community.

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Public interest in holding the trial in Greymouth outweighed "economics and convenience" for Whittall's legal team.

Whittall had initially been seen as some sort of a hero in the blast's wake only to later become vilified, Stanaway said.

However, he doubted the community's poor behaviour toward Whittall had reached the point the trial needed to change venue.

Whittall is the sole individual charged over the tragedy at the underground West Coast coalmine.

In April, Judge Farish found Pike River Coal Ltd (in receivership) guilty on nine health and safety failures and blamed it for causing the fatal blast. It would be sentenced on July 4 and 5.

VLI Drilling, a Sydney-based subsidiary of Valley Longwall International, admitted last July to three charges of health and safety failures relating to the tragedy and was fined $46,800 last October, which sparked outrage from many families of the dead men. 

- The Press

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