No prosecution over CTV building collapse

The police have decided not to prosecute anyone over the CTV building collapse in the Christchurch earthquake. Not surprisingly this has dismayed many people.

RNZ: CTV decision ‘not trial by expert’

A criminal prosecution against the designers of the CTV building was abandoned even though engineers said it was clear substandard design led to the collapse.

On Thursday, police announced they did not have sufficient evidence for a successful prosecution.

“If I’d taken my heart’s advice, we would have prosecuted. I can’t take my heart’s advice, I have to use my head,” Detective Superintendent Peter Read said.

Documents released by the police show the Crown Solicitor had concluded there was enough evidence to lay charges of negligent manslaughter against designers Alan Reay and David Harding, after a three-year $1.2 million police investigation.

The centrepiece of that investigation was a report by the leading engineering firm BECA that lays out a dozen major deficiencies in the structural design.

“It is our opinion that, had the whole building complied with codes and practices of the day, the building, though damaged, would have had sufficient resilience not to collapse suddenly and in a pancaking fashion,” BECA said.

“Dr Reay’s omission to discharge his obligations in regard to the allocation of appropriate resources to the design were the reason why the design errors were not identified and corrected, and was therefore a substantial and operating cause of the deaths.”

BECA and the two peer reviewers agreed that Dr Reay and Mr Harding did not fulfil their duty to design up to code – a major departure from expected standards, which was a substantial cause of the collapse.

This sounds fairly damning. I wonder how many other buildings around the country are substandard?

But Deputy Solicitor General Brendan Horsley pulled back, saying “this is not trial by expert” and he considered the prospects of a successful prosecution were low, as did the Crown Solicitor.

“A key difficulty for the prosecution would be in proving the CTV building would not have collapsed in the absence of the identified design errors,” he said.

“The expert peer reviewers were cautious about drawing this conclusion.”

An American peer reviewer, who is not named, said it was possible the collapse could have occurred in the absence of design errors due to higher than expected ground motions in combination with the building’s lack of resilience.

The documents explained that the building code at the time did not demand adequately strong columns for resilience in high-risk zones.

However, a New Zealand peer reviewer pointed out other buildings of a similar age and type withstood the quake and that the designers did not take into account the building having to move sideways in a quake.

I don’t think anyone expected such a dangerous earthquake in Christchurch. That other buildings withstood the quake could be due to range of factors. The specific site the CTV building was on may have been particularly vulnerable.

The building’s designer Dr Reay said he was “deeply anguished.”

In a statement, he said: “I have tried to understand why the building characteristics changed after the September 2010 earthquake and then ultimately collapsed.

“It is my strongest hope that from this tragedy every possible lesson is learned.”

I’m sure he is anguished.

Certainly lessons will have been learned, it’s important that they are.

Justice Minister Andrew Little said he wanted to consider introducing a corporate manslaughter charge in the future.

“Everybody involved in this has walked away scot-free. And that’s not right,” he said.

He’s not right – I’m fairly sure that anyone who thinks they could have some degree of responsibility for this tragedy carry a heavy burden.

Would a prosecution be in the public interest? Would it achieve anything useful?

Would Little be happy for politicians to be prosecuted if laws were found to be at fault in a tragedy?

If there was deliberate cutting of safety corners in building design and construction then certainly charges should be a strong possibility. But for human error?

Should designers and builders of buildings found to be substandard and have survived so far because they haven’t been subject to devastating earthquakes be prosecuted?

Should council planners and geologists who didn’t foresee the risks of the Christchurch land that was built on be culpable?

Or should it be ensured that lessons are properly learned and acted on in the future, and leave it at that?