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HomeNew ZealandWorkSafe prosecution of Ruapehu skifield operator over fatal bus crash delayed again

WorkSafe prosecution of Ruapehu skifield operator over fatal bus crash delayed again

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By Natalie Akoorie of NZ Herald

Young bus crash victim Hannah Francis and her mum Michelle.

Young bus crash victim Hannah Francis and her mum Michelle.
Photo: Supplied

The family of a young girl killed when a ski bus crashed on Mt Ruapehu have expressed frustration at delays in the prosecution of the bus operator, Ruapehu Alpine Lifts.

Auckland schoolgirl Hannah Francis died when the shuttle bus she and 30 others were passengers on crashed while descending Ohakune Mountain Rd in July 2018.

No charges were laid by police or WorkSafe at the time of the 11-year-old’s death, but a coroner’s inquest in 2021 found the bus’ brakes used an air-over-hydraulic brake system that was old technology and the driver made critical errors that led to the brakes failing.

Coroner Brigitte Windley’s findings restarted the limitations for WorkSafe to lay charges after the original timeframe for doing so had lapsed.

WorkSafe laid two charges against the passenger service bus operator in May last year and in August a deemed not guilty plea was entered by the court after a judge declined RAL’s request for a further adjournment without plea.

WorkSafe in September dropped a charge of failing to ensure the health and safety of road users was not put at risk from its work against Vehicle Testing New Zealand.

A case review hearing scheduled for 21 October, where the details of the case would be laid out before a trial, was adjourned after RAL put itself into voluntary administration 10 days earlier because of financial woes.

The company, which operates North Island ski fields Tūroa and Whakapapa on Mt Ruapehu, was $40 million in debt.

On the same day the case review hearing was to take place, the High Court made orders extending the voluntary administration of RAL to 9 May this year.

RAL applied to have the case review rescheduled, which WorkSafe did not oppose. But, before the 20 January hearing could take place at the Taihape District Court, RAL and WorkSafe made a joint application for a further adjournment until May.

Judge Stephanie Brown noted Hannah’s family had recently supplied victim impact statements to the court expressing concern about “further delays with this prosecution”.

In a statement to the Herald on behalf of the family, Hannah’s parents Matt Francis and Michelle Bruton said they could not comment on details of the WorkSafe prosecution against RAL while it was still before the courts.

“In saying this, the delays and continual requests for continuance by RAL are making an already difficult situation even more difficult for us all and adding to our trauma,” they said.

“There are also a number of other victims from this accident that are affected by these delays.

“Although we appreciate the current situation for RAL, we hope that this matter can be bought to conclusion as soon as possible to allow us to move forward with our lives.”

RAL faces two charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, which each carry a maximum fine of $1.5m.

The adjournment request was made under section 239 of the Companies Act, which restricted proceedings against a company in administration unless the administrator gives written consent or the court gives permission.

“The defendant submits that the administrators are not yet in a position to determine whether consent will be granted, nor do they wish to put the prosecutor to the expense of applying for leave to continue this prosecution in circumstances where consent may later be granted,” Judge Edwards said.

The administrators wanted more time to assess the financial position of the company and preferred to wait until 9 May, the court heard.

In November ANZ and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) contributed $4m to the embattled skifield operator, to help get it through to this year’s ski season.

In December the government announced it would advance a further $6m to retain RAL management and its skifield assets through continued maintenance, buying the administrators time to come up with an alternative commercial solution.

Judge Edwards was not prepared to adjourn the case review hearing until May and instead adjourned it until 17 February.

She told WorkSafe prosecutor Rachael Woods the agency must explain the delays to Hannah’s family.

“Ms Woods accepts that the prosecutor has a responsibility to explain the current situation to the victims, and also to consider whether WorkSafe should be seeking the permission of the High Court to continue with the prosecution during the administration period.”

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