20 Sep 2019

Bus company Ritchies fined for fatal Christmas Eve crash in 2016

6:51 pm on 20 September 2019

Bus company Ritchies has been fined $210,000 over the 2016 Christmas Eve bus crash that killed three people from Tonga.

Emergency services at the scene of the bus crash south of Gisborne that claimed two lives.

Emergency services at the scene of the bus crash in 2016. Photo: Facebook / Tonganow

The bus had been carrying 53 people from Tonga's Mailefihi Siu'ilikutapu College brass band when it plunged down a bank near Gisborne at about 10.30pm.

Sione Taumalolo, 11, and Talita Moimoi, 33, died at the scene.

Leotisia Malakai, 55, died eight days later in hospital.

Ritchies had earlier pleaded guilty to a charge laid by WorkSafe of failing to ensure the health and safety of other people was not put at risk.

At sentencing in the Waitakere District Court this morning, as well as the fine, the company was ordered to pay reparations totalling $750,000 to the families of those killed and the injured.

Some of those injured in the crash gave victim impact statements in court earlier this month.

They said they were still angry about what happened and had recurring nightmares.

Mr Lokotui, who was the school's head boy, had been sleeping in the aisle of the bus because there were not enough seats. Then he heard screaming.

"I remember waking up in the bus after the crash, I managed to cut myself out ... and I was just sitting there by a tree in shock," he said.

"I was staring up into space just trying to recollect what had happened. I realised ... when I looked at my leg that it had been damaged."

Doctors eventually had to amputate his left leg just above his knee. Mr Lokotui said it had completely changed his life.

"I had a lot of goals and dreams for the future but after the accident I can't pursue those dreams anymore - especially my love for rugby," he said.

He has had to stay with family in Māngere since the crash because he needs ongoing treatment. Now 21, Mr Lokotui wonders when he will be able to return home to Tonga for good.

"I now don't have any bad feelings [towards] the driver of the bus, I understand there were issues with the bus but the driver should have stopped and asked for help," he said.

The bus driver, Talakai Aholelei, was sentenced last year to five-and-a-half months home detention and had to pay $36,000 in reparations.

Saunaleva Hehepoto was also on the bus that night and said she had ongoing nightmares about what happened.

"Sometimes I jump up screaming and my husband keeps asking me what happened," she said.

At one point during the sentencing, the 66-year-old became so emotional she had to pause before reading on. Ms Hehepoto said she cried a lot about the crash.

"I always feel sad for myself and what happened. [I also] feel sad for those who have lost their lives ... and left behind their families," she said.

Before the crash, Judge Jelas told the court passengers had smelled burning rubber.

The driver stopped the bus in Wairoa to see what was wrong, but he didn't ask for help or notify Ritchies about the problem.

Judge Jelas said Mr Aholeilei had been asked by the college group to drive them to Gisborne.

An experienced bus driver for Ritchies, he arranged to hire a bus from the company.

Known as a dry hire, Judge Jelas told the court that at the time, Ritchies didn't provide rental agreements for these sorts of hires.

"A compliant rental agreement would have included a telephone number to be called during the period of hire, and instructions as to what the hirer should do if the vehicle breaks down and needs repair."

She said it was a significant failure.

"In my view, the lack of a rental agreement and the general circumstances surrounding Mr Aholeilei's of [the bus] reflect poorly on Ritchies Transport. They do not demonstrate a company operating best practice at that time."

The bus had also missed its 5000 kilometre service.

WorkSafe's Chief Inspector Investigations Hayden Mander said there should have been systems in place to make sure buses that were being hired were safe and suitable.

"This would have included verifying that the bus was in a safe and compliant operational condition before it was hired out and providing the driver with adequate information including clear instructions on what to do if a fault developed," he said.

Three of Ritchies' directors were in court for the sentencing.

In a statement, Glenn Ritchie said changes have been made since the crash.

"We do accept that not having the correct rental hire agreement requiring what a driver should do in the event of a break down or repair was a technical failure which is regrettable and should have been better. Accordingly, Ritchies has since reviewed its hire agreement process which is now more robust," he said.

"We learnt from this incident how to improve our dry hire agreements so that hopefully drivers in the future are reminded on paper of what they are all repeatedly trained to do and how to respond to minimise the impact on our passengers, customers and communities."