Queenstown ski firm admits fault for chairlift accident

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A Queenstown ski field operator has accepted partial blame for a chairlift accident that left a woman with a broken leg.

NZSki yesterday admitted a breach of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992.

The firm had previously denied the charge, relating to an incident in August last year when two passengers jumped from a chairlift at Coronet Peak.

A female passenger fractured both bones in one leg at the ankle. She required surgery and faces long rehabilitation before she can walk again, likely with a permanent limp.

A defended hearing on two charges laid by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment was due to continue at Queenstown District Court yesterday.

But instead the firm changed its plea and admitted failing to ensure a customer was not injured by a hazard, namely a fall from height, at its skifield.

A second charge of failing to ensure all practicable steps to ensure no action or inaction of any employee harmed any other person was withdrawn.

NZSki is due to be sentenced this morning.

It faces a maximum penalty of $250,000, however, counsel Glenn Jones is expected to submit a $40,000 fine would be an appropriate starting point.

Crown Prosecutor Michael Morris, acting on instructions yesterday, says an elderly couple had purchased tickets to take a scenic ride up the chairlift, as foot passengers.

They were to disembark at the top for sightseeing before travelling back down the mountain on the chairlift.

“Neither had ridden a chairlift before and it was the first time [the male victim] had touched snow.”

The ticket checker that day, Mattheus Formgren, let the couple through and showed them where to proceed to load the chairlift, but did not explain how to use it.

The lift operator supervisor was David Hunt, responsible for loading passengers on to the chairlift.

After explaining how to get on to the chairlift and ensuring the bar was lowered, Hunt phoned the lift operator at the top of the chairlift, Tara Wade, alerting her to the foot passengers and suggesting she may need to slow the chairlift when they disembarked “as they were older”.

Hunt also gave her the number of the chair the couple was on.

“When [the couple] approached the top, they did not raise the bar and unload on the dismount ramp, as they did not know what they were supposed to do or where they were to get off.

“Eventually they raised the bar and then they fell or jumped off the chairlift when the chair had turned almost 90 degrees around the bull wheel …”

They fell from more than a metre to the ground, landing on “large chunks of ice”.

Wade had been sweeping snow, was not standing beside the controls and did not slow or stop the chairlift.

The impact caused the female victim to suffer a pilon fracture of her left ankle, with breaks of the left tibia and fibula around the ankle joint.

The woman required surgery to stabilise the fractures with plates and “faces a long rehabilitation before she can walk again”.

The woman was also likely to have a “permanent, noticeable limp”.

Morris says the male victim received a laceration on his knee and he aggravated an existing shoulder injury, rupturing his rotator cuff.

“The defendant’s representative said that it was the ticket checker’s responsibility to inform foot passengers how to load and unload [and] its employees are verbally informed at an induction training that they are to ‘stay close to the buttons’ when passengers are unloading.

“The defendant had a written policy that it was ‘down to the judgement’ of the top operator as to whether a food passenger would need the lift slowed or stopped to unload.”

– Otago Daily Times