15 Apr 2019

Ritchies bus company pleads guilty to charge over fatal Christmas Eve crash

1:29 pm on 15 April 2019

Bus company Ritchies has pleaded guilty to a health and safety charge laid over the 2016 Christmas Eve bus crash near Gisborne that left three people dead.

Ritchies Coachlines.

Ritchies Coachlines. Photo: Supplied.

The bus was carrying members of a school brass band that was on a four-week fundraising tour from Tonga.

The band was on its way to Gisborne to perform at a church on Christmas Day, when the bus plunged down a steep bank.

Sione Taumololo, 11, and Talita Fifita, 33, were killed instantly in the crash, while Leotisia Malakai, 55, died eight days later in Waikato Hospital.

In the Waitākere District Court this morning, Ritchies entered a guilty plea through its lawyer to an amended charge laid by WorkSafe, for failing to ensure the health and safety of other people was not put at risk.

Talakai Aholelei who was driving the bus which crashed near Gisborne on Christmas Eve.

Talakai Aholelei who was driving the bus which crashed near Gisborne on Christmas Eve. Photo: supplied

Last year, the driver of the bus, Talakai Aholelei, was sentenced to five-and-a-half months' home detention and had his license suspended for two years.

He pleaded guilty to three charges of careless driving causing death and 27 charges of careless driving causing injury.

He also had to pay $36,000 in reparations.

At Aholelei's sentencing, one of the injured, Tevita Lokotui, told the court he had been asleep in the aisle of the bus when the crash happened.

He said he was woken by children screaming.

"I heard the teachers asking the bus driver what was happening, but he did not answer. That was when we crashed."

Mr Lokotui managed to get out of the bus, but he suffered serious injuries to one of his legs.

He was taken to hospital where his left leg was amputated above the knee.

"Before the crash, my goal in life was to join the Tongan army and play in their brass band. But now that I have lost my leg, the Tongan army won't allow me to join."

At the sentencing, Aholelei's lawyer, Nalesoni Tupou, said his client was regretful and remorseful about what had happened.

When he was initially asked to drive the bus for the school group, Aholelei's family had told him he could not, because he could not be away from Auckland for Christmas.

It was only the third time that he was asked that he agreed to drive the bus.

Mr Tupou said his client's life would change forever - he had been a bus driver for more than 30 years.

Handing down the sentence, Judge June Jelas said Aholelei made a fatal mistake in continuing to drive the bus, despite his concerns about a problem with the brakes.

He had pulled over in Wairoa and believed that the brakes were just too hot.

"Though you have many talents, you are not a mechanic," Judge Jelas said.

Judge Jelas said he had no reason to make the assessment that the bus was safe and by continuing to drive, he was taking a significant risk.

She said Aholelei realised while travelling down a hill that he was having problems with the brakes. He did what he could to slow the bus, but it was an automatic.

The back of the bus slid sideways, over a railing alongside the road, and down a slope.