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Court and Puketi fail killed worker’s family

The family of a Bay of Plenty forestry worker killed on the job will not see a cent of the $75,000 a court ordered they should receive after the company he worked for was liquidated. Source: NewsHub

One of the lawyers involved in the case has questioned the morality of the move after no mention was made in court about inability to pay, but the logging company’s lawyer says it is offensive to suggest liquidation was a way of avoiding payment.

The Council of Trade Unions last year successfully took a private prosecution against Puketi Logging after 19-year-old Eramiha Pairama was killed by a falling tree in an eastern Bay of Plenty forest.

The Labour Department had decided against prosecuting over his death in January 2013.

Puketi Logging was found guilty of failing to take all practical steps to provide him with a safe working environment.

Four weeks after the October 1 sentencing, at which it was also fined it $25,000, the three-year-old company was placed in liquidation at the request of its shareholders, Whakatane’s Lawrence Harper and his wife Yvonne.

The liquidator’s report said the company owed trade and general creditors $51,053 and fines and reparations worth $100,050. While it leased most of its machinery, it had disposed of its assets in the 2015 financial year.

Nigel Hampton, QC, represented the CTU in the case and confirmed Mr Pairama’s family would not get any of the court-ordered $75,000 in reparation.

“It’s not great for the family and one wonders about the moral issues that lie behind the steps that were taken,” he told NZ Newswire.

During the hearing there were claims any fine or reparation would be hard to pay, he said.

“But nothing that said it was impossible and certainly nothing to indicate they were on the verge of liquidation,” he said.

“Put in the context of expressions of regret that were offered her (his mother Selina Eruera) at the hearing for what had happened rather questions the genuineness or otherwise of those expressions,” Mr Hampton said.

Helen Kelly, who was CTU leader when the case against the forest company was being prepared, says a huge effort was made to get justice for Mr Pairama.

Mr Harper had the assets and could have paid the money, but chose not to, she said.

But the lawyer for the logging company is highly critical of the CTU’s prosecution, saying it cost jobs and left no winners.

Brett Harris has been helping the Harpers for free, similar to the CTU assisting Mr Pairama’s family.

He said the family had been offered about $50,000 that was available, but they had said they wanted answers instead.

“Any suggestion that the company was liquidated to avoid a debt is – to me – actually quite offensive,” he told NZ Newswire in an email.

The company was set up four months before Mr Pairama’s death with the hope the crew could make a business of their own.

However, the impact of the legal case was immediate and dramatic. Contracts for new work were difficult to find.

“In the end most of the crew left or started working in other industries like kiwifruit because there was no more work – well before the prosecution commenced.”

The company couldn’t pay its debts and liquidation was the only option.

Mr Harris said the CTU case was that Puketi had issued substandard protective clothing and the hauler operator hadn’t seen Mr Pairama.

However, the judge had said the standards were so new – the code had not yet been printed – there was a grace period and there was no technical breach.

Three forestry reports into the accident weren’t produced in court, nor any autopsy evidence, he said.

It was also never clear what struck Mr Pairama.

“Even now the judge and the coroner are trying to understand what happened and three of the four charges laid were dismissed – so in my opinion this is not a typical forestry case.

“Even the judge said at sentencing he could not give answers and he hoped the coroner might find some answers – after five full days of careful evidence. There are no winners here.”

A coronial inquest into Mr Pairama’s death will be held on April 28, which is also Workers’ Memorial Day – the day to mark those killed at work.

In 2013, 10 people were killed in forestry accidents, sparking a massive overhaul in 2014 and the fatalities were reduced to three last year.

Mr Pairama’s mother, Selina Eruera, isn’t angry that her family won’t get any of the court-ordered reparation.

“It’s not disappointing if you don’t expect anything.”

She says she got satisfaction from the successful court case, when the Council of Trade Unions brought a private prosecution after the Labour Department decided against legal action.

However, she is disappointed the system allows people to put their business into liquidation and avoid paying either the court-ordered reparation or $25,000 fine.

The company says it had no other option and the CTU prosecution had helped it go under.

Ms Eruera said she had gone through a lot because safety officials wouldn’t prosecute the company. It was like the Pike River Coal mine company case, she said.

“That’s what the system has created, the opportunities for businesses to do the same thing.

“There are some people out there who are snakes.”

Ms Eruera said Puketi owner Lawrence Harper had not done the right thing by her son.

“I think he failed because my son had an accident the week before and he didn’t think anything of it.”

Despite that, she says she is not bitter towards him. If she met him in the street: “I’d probably say kia ora.”