2 Aug 2013

Judge finds Defence culpable over death

6:25 pm on 2 August 2013

The Defence Force has been found to have a high level of culpability over the the death of a soldier who drowned while on a training exercise last year.

Private Michael Ross fell from an inflatable boat into Lake Moawhango, a small lake located with the Army's Waiouru Military Camp, in September 2012.

Private Michael Ross.

Private Michael Ross. Photo: DEFENCE FORCE

Private Ross was loaded down with gear but had on an inadequate lifejacket. Navy divers found his body a week later following an extensive search.

The Army last week admitted a charge of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the 29-year-old's safety.

In ruling released on Friday, Judge Stephen O'Driscoll said the inescapable conclusion was that the Defence Force had a high level of culpability.

Judge O'Driscoll could not fine the Defence Force because it is a Crown agency, but said the $241,000 reparation it has paid to the family is fair and added that being immune from a fine does not make it immune from scrutiny.

The judge said it was a shame changes to the Defence Force's best practice weren't implemented before Private Ross' death. He said employers should not wait for a tragedy to occur to review processes and procedures.

The Chief of Army, Major General Dave Gawn, said it has accepted from the outset that its level of responsibility over Private Ross' death is high and if a number of safety procedures had been adhered to, the death could have been prevented. He said the army is striving to improve those procedures to prevent another incident like this.

The family of Private Ross says the ruling reinforces how many serious errors were at play. A spokesperson for the family, Charles Hohaia, agrees that the military shouldn't be immune from scrutiny.

"They're sort of on notice now in one way, because the judge's ruling has just reaffirmed the culpability. And I'm sure they have taken notice. But we'll only know down the track whether there's another life lost because of some process not followed or some process not even being there."

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, which laid the charge, is pleased with the ruling, saying the high culpability finding supports its view that hazards need to be treated as a whole, not as individual issues.