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Guests put at “risk of death or serious injury” by maintenance failure, court finds

A 30-year-old hotel balustrade was an “obvious risk” when it collapsed in 2017, injuring four men as they crashed backwards onto a concrete path below.

A court has found the then owners of the Portage Hotel Resort in Marlborough Sounds guilty of negligence over the 2017 incident, which left one patron unconscious with a broken back and three others suffering moderate injuries.

Blenheim District Court heard Barry and Laina Walters, whose Portage Management company is now in liquidation, put people at “risk of death or serious injury” because they failed to maintain the balcony before the accident.

The four patrons were enjoying an evening drink lounging against the balustrade at around 7pm on October 20, 2017 when the northern end gave way.

Ralph Jones was airlifted by rescue helicopter to Nelson hospital shortly afterwards, Judge Mill surmising: “When he hit the ground he knew his back was broken.”

Mike Fitzgibbon was knocked unconscious and fractured his collarbone, wrist and thumb, while 89-year-old Rod Eatwell sustained cuts.  Both were taken to Wairau Hospital in Blenheim with moderate injuries.

The fourth victim, John A’Hearn, received minor injuries and was treated at the scene.

The company was prosecuted by WorkSafe New Zealand after an investigation conducted by inspector Russell Young concluded the barrier had not been maintained and “presented an obvious and ongoing risk”.

Judge Mill agreed the 30-year-old balustrade was at a height which allowed people to sit or lean on it, and no preventative maintenance had been undertaken on it. He said the barrier deteriorated over time, partly due to the raising of the height when the deck was renewed.

Portage Management Limited were found to have breached the Health and Safety at Work Act by failing to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the workplace was without risks to the health and safety of any person.

Judge Mill reserved sentencing until January 28 pending evidence from the defendant and liquidators about its financial position.

Portage Management was set up to manage the day-to-day operation of the Portage Hotel Resort. They employed six workers including a part-time handyman.

Judge Mill said the defendants, who managed and controlled the workplace, had a duty to manage the risk of the barrier and they failed to comply with that duty.

The property is now run by THC Group, which took over management in February.

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Kate Jackson

Kate Jackson is the editor of Accomnews. You can reach her at any time with questions or submissions: editorial@accomnews.co.nz

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