Alistair McWhannell Guilty Of Manslaughter In Swing Bridge Death

Alistair McWhannell

In what must be a landmark decision in adventure tourism in New Zealand company director Alistair McWhannell has just been found guilty of the manslaughter of Catherine Peters.

“Adventure company director Alistair McWhannell has been found guilty of the manslaughter of student Catherine Peters, who fell to her death while bridge-swinging last year.

A jury of seven men and five women took just over three hours to reach their verdict in the High Court at Palmerston North today.

McWhannell, 47, was accused of failing to ensure his bridge swing operation was safe when Ms Peters, 18, fell about 20 metres on to rocks below the Ballance Bridge, near Woodville, on March 7 last year.

The Crown said the Crag Adventures director allowed Ms Peters to jump off the bridge with a rope that was too long and not attached to the rig correctly, which amounted to “gross negligence” on his part.

But the defence unsucessfully argued McWhannell’s error was not serious enough to be considered manslaughter.

McWhannell was convicted after a trial lasting six days, during which, the Crown called 33 witnesses.

Supporters of McWhannell wept in the public gallery as the verdict was read out.

He will be sentenced on July 29, remanded on bail for pre-sentence report.”

Are thoughts are with Catherine’s family and friends today.

Hopefully this decision will now result in the publication of a government review of NZ’s Adventure Tourism industry, instigated after a succession of deaths and serious injuries over the years. The report was supposed to have been finished at the end of last month but has yet to see the light of day.

The sector is seen by some to be poorly controlled and regulated, with novel sports having little or no official guidance. Father of  British tourist Emily Jordan wrote to John Key calling safety regulation in New Zealand “third world” after his daughter drowned whilst riverboarding. The company found guilty of her death escaped with a light fine and a manslaughter charge was dropped before the defence had a chance to present its case.

At the time of Miss Peters’ death there were no required safety standards for bridge swinging in New Zealand:

” Scott Woods, the previous owner of City Rock, the Palmerston North climbing gym managed by McWhannell, said though there were no required safety standards for bridge swinging, he had taken it upon himself to draft guidelines and had trained McWhannell in using them.

It was often easier to have one person – a “jump master” – in charge of everything. “If that person’s doing all the work they are fully responsible. It does create a check of sorts because you know each job has been done because you’ve done it yourself”

Amazingly no official safety guidance for something as established as Climbing Walls existed in New Zealand at the time of a serious ‘accident’ at Ferg’s Rock and Kayak, Wellington in 2008.

Following the incident the Dept of Labour issued a “hazard bulletin”, including a safety checklist, to 35 operators of climbing walls nationwide to help them ensure they take all practicable steps, as required by law, to protect their customers. Official safety guidance on climbing walls has been around since 2001 in the UK.

“The Department had been concerned at the growing number of wall climbing accidents and believes the industry’s development of guidelines is important to improve safety standards. The Department will work with the industry as required to facilitate this.
The need for such guidelines was endorsed by the Greymouth coroner last month in his findings on the death of a woman after a climbing wall accident in Greymouth in April 2009.
The Department’s key messages to climbing wall managers are to ensure beginners are properly instructed in belay procedures and demonstrate competence before climbing, and to ensure constant supervision of the climbing wall.  They also need to review safety procedures to ensure they meet minimum standards and ensure their lead instructors hold suitable New Zealand Outdoor Instructors Association qualification.” source

Isn’t about time that similar guidance and support was issued to operators of bridge swings and shouldn’t all dangerous adventure activities be fully audited by the Safety Inspectorate before a business is allowed to put the public’s lives at risk?

“Outdoors New Zealand says the manslaughter conviction shows the need for a national standard in the adventure tourism industry.

The organisation’s chief executive, Paul Chaplow, says it is reasonable for people to believe they are safe when they take part in adventure sport activities.” …. “external audits by independent industry experts should become compulsory.” (source RadioNZ)

Mr Chaplow is a panel member of the project working group for the Adventure Tourism review. Is this perhaps a hint that the industry will be undergoing a large shake up soon if he has anything to do with it and who are the independent industry experts that will be auditing it? And why is there no mention of a national licensing , or registration, scheme?