NZSki to pay $440,000 fine for Coronet Peak ski death

by Lauren Pattemore - Oct 10, 2023

NZSki has been fined $440,000 after being found guilty in relation to the death of skier Anita Graf at Coronet Peak in 2019.

The Queenstown ski field operator will also pay an additional $130,000 to the family of Ms Graf for emotional harm caused.

NZSki chief executive Paul Anderson was in the Queenstown District Court to hear the sentencing decision delivered this morning, alongside NZSki lawyer James Rapley, while friends and family members of Ms Graf attended in the public gallery.

Judge Geoff Rea says while he originally sentenced NZSki to a fine of $550,000, he chose to deduct 20 percent from this figure - with 10 percent reflecting the company having gone the "extra mile" to manage the risks posed by fences, and the rest for their willingness to pay the family compensation.

NZSKi will also pay $28,000 to WorkSafe for costs incurred during the investigation and prosecution procedures.

NZSki was convicted over the death in mid-August following a gruelling seven-day trail in April, where WorkSafe successfully argued the company had not taken adequate steps to mitigate the risk posed by a row of fence posts at the bottom of the Sugars Run trail.

Ms Graf, an experienced local skier and former instructor, struck one of the fence posts before she died on the mountain from injuries.

The post she skied into was unpadded, despite several previous serious harm injuries and near misses related to the fence, which surrounds a water reservoir.

During today's sentencing, WorkSafe prosecutor Katie Hogan says if the reservoir was identified as a hazard skiers could ski into it was "obvious" that the fence posts could be skied into as well.

Ms Hogan says family members have experienced "shock, grief and turmoil" as a result of Ms Graf's death, while Judge Rea says reading victim impact statements from Ms Graf's sister and daughters was a "very sad task".

The judge says the evidence shows NZSki "didn't live up to their own standards" for health and safety, referencing a 2014 document written by then ski patroller Ashley Stewart.

According to a report by Mr Stewart, the deer fence posed a high risk as it was very likely to be skied into at high speed.

This report was found by investigators on an old computer, and during the investigation Mr Anderson said he had not seen the report until after Ms Graf's death. 

Today in court, NZSki lawyer Mr Rapley says the ski company had taken action in response to the tragedy, spending $180,000 on safety catch-net fencing around the water reservoir and at other potential problem spots on the mountain as well as at its Mt Hutt ski field.

A flower tribute on the fence post that Anita Graf skied into, causing her death on Coronet Peak in 2019.

The maximum penalty for the conviction is $1.5million but Mr Rapley today argued for a much lesser penalty for his client, saying a fine of $250,000 was "more appropriate" and suggesting the $130,000 for the family also be subtracted from this figure.

It is the view of Mr Rapley any sentence would not undo the "sorrow and hurt caused by Ms Graf-Russell's tragic death".

However, the WorkSafe prosecutor pushed back at any suggestion of a lesser amount, saying, "Reparations and fines have very different purposes - reparation is for loss, fines are for punishment". 

The suggestion by the NZSki lawyer was not endorsed by Judge Rae.

The coroner's report showed Ms Graf suffered blunt force trauma injuries, including rib fractures, rupture of her heart chambers, and multiple bruises on her body, after hitting the post on the morning of September 21, 2019. 

During the trial, a witness for the defendant suggested aggressive CPR contributed to her death, but the judge confirmed during sentencing Ms Graf's injuries were unrelated to CPR. 

Asked by Crux today after the sentencing if NZSki accepts responsibility for Ms Graf's death, Mr Anderson skirted the question.

"We sincerely regret that the safety measures we had in place on Sugars Run didn't prevent the accident, and we're sorry that her family has had to go through events that tragic day and the trial."

However Mr Anderson acknowledges the death has had a "massive impact on everyone involved" and extends his "deepest sympathies" to the family.

He says his team has reflected on its work practices and made changes, particularly around ensuring adequate documentation of safety assessments and recommendations.

Main image: NZSki chief executive Paul Anderson, right, with NZSki lawyer James Rapley, in the Queenstown District Court, Tuesday, October 10, for sentencing over the 2019 death of Anita Graf at Coronet Peak ski field.


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