The Kawarau Jet driver charged for his involvement in a death on the Shotover River two years ago has been found not guilty.
Ian Morgan was acquitted by a jury of seven women and five men on July 9 of one charge of operating a jetboat in a manner which caused unnecessary danger or risk to other people.
Chinese tourist Yan Wang, 42, was killed and six other passengers were injured when the fully-laden boat Morgan was driving flipped on a sandbar at the confluence of the Shotover and Kawarau Rivers on September 25, 2008.
The sole charge, brought by Maritime New Zealand, carries a maximum one-year jail sentence or a $10,000 fine.
In the Invercargill District Court hearing – held in Dunedin last week due to a refurbishment – the jury cleared Morgan by an 11-1 majority after a five-day hearing.
The court heard that Morgan, 37, – an experienced driver with an impeccable record – chose to turn right at the confluence that day, following the same route he’d taken on two previous trips.
It was a route he and other colleagues took “thousands of times” during his eight years’ driving, and according to a statement Morgan made after the accident, he saw no typical signs of a sandbar before hitting it.
Heavy rain two days beforehand meant the forever-changing Shotover was murky and river levels were falling – which can lead to “inherent risks”, expert witnesses agreed.
At the time, the bar was in an area of flat water which makes determining depth difficult. Kawarau Jet hadn’t identified the sandbar as a hazard in its safe operational plan.
Morgan was following colleague Brett Fitzgerald, who’d turned left at the confluence to spin his boat. Fitzgerald was about 300 metres ahead of Morgan when he turned right on to the Kawarau River.
Expert witnesses for both the Crown and defence agreed Fitzgerald’s boat wake may have affected the depth of water covering the sandbar.
The boat “glanced” the bar and wasn’t damaged – consistent with Morgan not speeding, the court heard.
Crown lawyer Brent Stanaway argued the undisputed risks associated with the Shotover River were “so obvious, no one needed to spell them out”.
A reasonable and prudent commercial jetboat driver with considerable experience should be able to read the river, he said.
Defence lawyer Garth Gallaway argued there were several contributing factors causing the boat to flip but none related to Morgan, or him being negligent.
Coverage of the trial and the verdict has been suppressed till now because of a separate jury trial earlier this week for Dunedin jetboat driver Jeff Donaldson.
Donaldson faced the same MNZ charge after English doctor Paul Joseph Woods, 29, died on the Matukituki River near Wanaka on Boxing Day, 2008. On Wednedsay, he changed his plea to guilty and today has been convicted, fined $2500 and ordered to pay $25,000 in reparation to Woods’ family.