THE TRIAL of former Ports of Auckland Ltd CEO Tony Gibson over the 2020 death of a stevedore during container operations is continuing before a judge in the Auckland District Court.

Mr Gibson, who was previously P&O Nedlloyd’s NZ chief and subsequently that of Maersk Line NZ following the latter’s takeover of the former in 2005, left POAL in 2021. In 2022 Maritime NZ charged him with two counts of breaching the Health & Safety at Work Act 2015, to which Mr Gibson pleaded not guilty.

This is the first such prosecution of a CEO under the legislation, which was introduced after the 2010 Pike River coal mine disaster. The Act puts the “primary responsibility” for the health and safety of workers on business and creating statutory obligations on officers including company directors, partners, board members, and chief executives to perform “due diligence to make sure the business understands and is meeting its health and safety responsibilities.”

The 31-yo Pala’amo Kalati was undertaking unlashing on the ANL/CMA CGM-chartered Constantinos P at Auckland’s Fergusson Container Terminal at 0200, 20 August 2020 when a third container, still partially attached to a twin lift, fell and fatally injured the stevedore.

MNZ also brought charges against POAL, which was convicted and fined NZ$500,000 last December.

MNZ alleges there were “systemic deficiencies” in of health and safety procedures at the port under Mr Gibson’s watch and that he failed to use his “influence, power and resource” around the boardroom and executive to properly monitor those failures and ensure necessary steps were taken to keep workers safe.

“An officer who can influence the organisation’s health and safety performance must do all that they are reasonably able to do: the buck stops with them,” the prosecution claims.

Mr Gibson’s defence lawyer, John Billington KC, argued his client cannot be held personally liable for the failures of individual systems and staff over which he had no direct control: “He was but one of 650 employees at the time, albeit the most senior. The conduct of POAL is not attributable to Mr Gibson.”

At the time of the accident, there was already a “fundamental and documented obligation” for workers to maintain a safe exclusion zone of three container widths when working around overhead cranes.

Under Mr Gibson’s watch, emphasis was placed on developing and improving health and safety systems, Mr Billington said in his submission to the court. He was instrumental in developing complex operating systems during the Covid-19 response to safeguard workers while allowing international freight operations to continue.

“We stress the importance of this because it demonstrates how seriously POAL took its obligation to the country and its staff, under Mr Gibson’s leadership,” the submission said. “This is not a case of a CEO sitting in an ivory-tower, disengaged from health and safety or his workforce.”

The trial is expected to continue for several weeks.