Defence Force fined for 'lax' actions over navy diver's death

6:43 pm on 16 October 2020

The New Zealand Defence Force has been fined nearly $300,000 over the death of a navy diver during a training exercise in March last year.

Able Communications Technician Zachary Christopher Yarwood died after an incident during a navy dive training exercise.

Zachary Christopher Yarwood, 23, was discovered unresponsive on the sea floor by a navy colleague. Photo: Supplied

Zachary Yarwood was found unresponsive during a night time dive exercise at the end of the first day of an "endurance week", where he and others had logged over 300 minutes of diving - a high number for a trainee. He was taken to hospital that night, and died the following day in hospital of oxygen deprivation to the brain.

The Defence Force pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to keep its employees safe, and was sentenced today in court.

The 23-year-old, who had been in the navy for six years, was found on the bottom of the sea by one of his trainee dive school colleagues.

An inquiry later found a range of issues with that dive, including that a dangerous oxygen breathing practise was in common use in the Defence Force and had become normal to do. There were not enough dive supervisors, and one standby diver had gone to make a cup of tea.

Today at sentencing, family members spoke about the effect of his death.

His mother Liz said she's incredibly angry at the Navy, and the inquiry into his death read like a comedy of errors.

"I struggle with the supervisors that night, not only not having the right qualifications, but leading two dive teams with little supervision. Even the standby diver going for a cup of tea. I struggle with the fact that the supervisors that night took 14 minutes to call the ambulance after they pulled him up unresponsive from the water."

Zachary's fiancée, Emily Parr, said losing her partner in this way has ruined her life.

She had to take a year off work without pay, isolated herself and had to leave Auckland due to the memories she and Zac had in the city.

"The Navy have let me down, and honestly ruined my life. But more importantly you let Zac down. He worked so hard for you, trusted you, and you were not there," Parr said.

"The navy are given the repercussion of a fine, but I'm the one left with a life sentence."

She painted a picture of an unsympathetic Navy, who removed her from their Navy house before she was ready, and made Zac's estate pay for his parts of his own funeral.

Crown lawyer Ben Finn said the Defence Force cut corners and made clear health and safety breaches.

Judge Eddie Paul said the behaviour during a high risk exercise was lax, well below standards, and a departure from the Navy's own instructions.

The Defence Force was not charged with causing Zachary Yarwood's death, but pleaded guilty to failing to keep its employees safe.

He fined the Defence Force $288,750, and noted the Navy had already paid compensation to the Yarwood family and Emily Parr.