Opinionated Coroners.

In the past few weeks coroners have been in the news. The investigations of the disappearance of an emotionally distraught woman at Piha, the Kahui twins murders and the death of a cyclist on Tamaki Drive have seen a surprising, some would say unusual, level of coroner opinion voiced on sensitive issues, some of which verges on editorializing.

For example, in the Piha case the coroner placed some responsibility for the young woman’s death on a couple of good Samaritans who tried to shelter and comfort her for four hours after she asked them not to call the police because she feared that the cops were angry at her. The coroner ignored the actions of seven other people who also interacted with the victim, including those who last saw her alive–naked and delirious talking to a light post–but did nothing and those at the house that she had fled from fearing sexual assault. He also downplayed the gross negligence of the police, who called a taxi rather than send a patrol car in response to the original 111 call from the distressed woman (the taxi driver was clueless and went to Onehunga rather than Piha). The coroner’s bottom line is that civilians should leave the handling of emergencies to professionals even if that means ignoring the wishes of those at risk. The implicit message could well be “do not get involved.”

The coroner in the Kahui twin case basically fingered the father for the murders. Since the father was acquitted of murder by a jury in a well-publicized trial, it will be interesting to see if the case is revived by the Police. The coroner’s verdict is clearly an instigation to do so.

The coroner in the Tamaki Drive cycle death case has suggested that it be mandatory for cyclists to wear high visibility clothing and to ride in cycle lanes where available. However, the cyclist was killed in daylight after swerving to avoid an abruptly opened door from a car parked immediately at the end of an irregularly marked cycle lane, on a notoriously tight corner. He ignored suggestions by bicycle advocates that the Auckland Council’s failure to remove parking along narrow stretches of Tamaki Drive contributed to the accident (which it did two days after the accident), or that the truck that killed her failed to adhere to the 2 meter gap rule (which ostensibly is the distance that should be maintained between cyclists and motor vehicles on roadways and which is in the road code). He reiterated a juries’ verdict that the motorist who opened the door without first looking behind him was not at fault. In effect, he blamed the cyclist for her own death.

I am curious about this. I am not an expert on Coroner’s courts or investigations, but I had thought that they were focused on the facts of the case in order to determine causality via a chain of events or circumstances. In this cases outlined above, the scope appears to have been expanded into opinionating and assigning blame rather than simply recommending improvements and safeguards to avoid similar occurrences. Have I got this understanding wrong or is this unusual?

I must confess that I live near Piha and have some local insight into the circumstances of the young woman’s disappearance. I am also a former recreational, commuter and competitive cyclist who has ridden on numerous occasions on Tamaki Drive (too flat for serious training unless it is a time trial, and only “safe” on early weekend mornings). I do not much care for infanticide regardless of who does it. So perhaps I am reading too much into these coroner’s reports, but from what I have seen it appears that in these cases they were interested in more than establishing the facts of the matter at hand.

11 thoughts on “Opinionated Coroners.

  1. The coroner in the Kahui twin case basically fingered the father for the murders. Since the father was acquitted of murder by a jury in a well-publicized trial, it will be interesting to see if the case is revived by the Police, The coroner’s verdict is clearly an instigation to do so.

    The case cannot be revived by the Police. Chris Kahui has been tried and acquitted. That’s it. The Police don’t get a second chance.*

    *for an acquittal entered before June 26, 2008.

  2. Graeme:

    I figured as much with regard to the original charge (since that would be double jeopardy), but wonder if Kahui can be tried for another related offense such as “reckless endangerment causing grievous (or fatal) bodily harm.”

  3. The death itself and injuries caused are out. They appeared to be suggesting that they were looking at the failure to seek medical assistance, but I’m not even sure that isn’t excluded.

  4. Well – its about time we started to see some sense coming out of the legal system.
    Any fool could see that the cyclist was at fault – not only is there a separate cycle track (which they wont use because they believe that they are entitled to use the road) but she rode into an alley where she was going to be in big trouble of someone opened a door. Whats more she was passing the truck -0 so what fool thinks the truck was at fault for not keeping 2 metres from the cyclist (forgetting that if the truck was 2 metres out it would be in the other lane.)

    The Piha case – of course tose two lesbians should have rung the police no matter what the deluded woman thought of them – and I dont blame the person who saw her talking to the lamp post – especially if it was a male – theyd be arrested by the police for sure -because only a sexmaniac would stop and talk to a naked female. if it were me Id be getting as far away as possible and Id never admit seeing her.

  5. Thanks Barry, for that illuminating perspective. Your rock awaits you.

  6. The Tamaki death was a classically New Zealand event and the product of exactly the same sort of creeping third world laziness that resulted in the Pike river disaster. A Slack refusal to take warnings seriously until after an entirely predictable and preventable death. Then a failed punitive prosecution of the person who was unfortunate catalyst of the disaster. And of course, no action whatsover – not even a resignation – directed towards those officials responsible for the institutional failures – people who are paid by ratepayers and taxpayers on the presumption that they are skilled experts in anticipating and planning against such “accidents” yet are never called to account when they are found to be asleep at the wheel.

  7. If we listened to everything a coroner recommends, we’d have banned, inter alia:
    – nailguns
    – quad bikes
    – swimming pools
    – bottled gas
    – foreign travel

    Sometimes I think they are trying to abolish death. I guess that’s their job, to advocate for safety, but maybe somebody should whisper to them that everyone has to die some day.

  8. Regarding Jane Bishop, even if the truck had been two metres behind her (there’s simply not space at that point for vehicles to be side-by-side and two metres apart) it would still have run her over because the driver would have been unable to react in the available time. Had it been two metres to the side of her it would quite likely have run over her head instead of her torso. The truck driver could not have been anywhere in the vicinity without running over her once she hit the road due to the simple vagaries of human reaction times and the laws of physics. At 30km/h, the truck would have been on top of Jane Bishop before the driver even had a chance to start to react: 30km/h=8.33m/s. Human reaction time is somewhere around 0.25 seconds, at best.

    That said, she was riding to the left. That’s against the law. It often puts cyclists into impossible situations, balancing safety and legality, but that’s what the ass of a law requires.

    As for Barry the Troll, the cycle lane on Tamaki Drive is useless for anyone other than small children. The surface is crap, it’s narrow, the pedestrians with whom one must share it have their heads firmly ensconced in their rectal cavities, and it’s just generally worthless to adult cyclists. Plus, cyclists are perfectly entitled to use the road. The law says so.

  9. Thanks Matt:

    I did not want to engage with Barry because he obviously does not know what he is talking about and has a chip on his shoulder regarding cyclists (as so many do) and women in distress.

    The “cycling” track is a joke and in fact dangerous for cyclists because of the amount of pedestrian traffic, its narrow width and bad surface. However, I think that the fault for Ms. Bishop’s death has to reside partially on the truck driver, who should have been looking up the road for potential hazards, including opening doors of parked cars (which he could have hit as well), and given her some distance once she passed him right before the curve (I am not sure if he was at a standstill when she passed him but we both know that passing cars on the left in slow traffic is standard practice and actually safer than swinging out into the traffic lane). I agree that he had little reaction time once the chain of events began, but had he some extra distance a brake and swerve might have helped mitigate the injuries.

    I also think that the city transport department is majorly at fault since they ignored warnings about that particular choke point.

    Which is why I think that the coroner got it wrong in his conclusions and recommendations.

  10. I doubt the driver could’ve swerved, TBH. Looking at the road layout from photos at the time it looks like it happened right where the traffic island sits, effectively restricting the truck driver to only his lane.

    You’re making a lot of assumptions about how much the truck driver could see of what was happening, too. I’ve done a little bit of truck driving, including as part of a Fire Service competition where we had to get the front of the appliance as close as possible to a road cone without touching it, and you have very limited visibility out to about three metres from your front bumper. If you’re more worried about the traffic in front of you, you’re not going to be looking for a cyclist who’s passing you illegally. The description I’ve seen of the accident had Bishop overtaking the truck before being knocked into its path, which makes it that much less fair to blame the truck driver for not having the foresight to see that someone who had just passed him was going to end up in trouble.

    Most of the fault lies with the former ACC for failing to remove the parks when advised of the danger (and with the Eastern Bays Community Board who were the party who lobbied against the removal. I hope they felt suitably guilty for their role, but doubt they have sufficient capacity for introspection), but there is also some fault with the cyclist for riding where she did. In the same situation I would’ve gone up the flush median and, indeed, have done so through Summer Sunday traffic.

    I’m hoping the overall investigation into cycling deaths (my brother’s partner’s brother was one of the deaths that’s being looked at, so it’s rather close to home) will result in recommendations for law changes that recognise that cyclists may be road users but they’re also incredibly vulnerable and thus should have more flexibility to pick the safest route instead of being restricted to what’s legal for motorised traffic.

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