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Gasfitter Michael Cartwright fined thousands over negligence that led to death of Jesse Samuel

5 min read

A gasfitter whose negligence led to the death of a 12-year-old boy will pay his family $70,000.

Michael Cartwright and Central Plumbing Limited – which trades as Laser Plumbing Alexandra – appeared in the Dunedin District Court this afternoon after pleading guilty to two charges under the Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Act.

As well as the reparation order, Cartwright was fined $19,250 and his company $104,500.

The defendants were responsible for the installation of a gas hot-water unit in a portable bathroom for Justine Walker and her family.

There was a warning sign on the unit, the court heard, that specified it should not be installed in a bathroom, but it was fatally ignored.

It was later transported to the family’s holiday home in Haast and, on October 10, 2018, 12-year-old Jesse Samuel died after taking a shower.

Justine Walker and other members of the extended family read tearful victim-impact statements in court this afternoon, but the contents were suppressed by Judge Josephine Bouchier.

Judge Bouchier began proceedings by formally acknowledging the loss of Jesse but informed those in court that their pain could not be a governing factor at sentencing.

The monetary penalties spoken about were not supposed to equate to the value of a life, the judge said.

“There’s nothing this court can do that will bring Jesse back.”

The summary of facts said Gary Hale – a registered plumber and gasfitter who jointly owns the company with Cartwright – was employed to install the gas hot-water unit.

Cartwright was responsible for signing off Hale’s work.

To avoid carbon monoxide entering the room, the unit had to be installed with adequate ventilation, the summary said.

Hale installed the water heater inside the bathroom and did not raise any concerns with Walker. Cartwright, who was required to certify the installation, never visited the bathroom, did not inspect the water heater, carry out any tests or consult with Hale, the court heard.

In 2017, the pipework split, but Hale wasn’t available to do the repairs. Walker sent the unit to a Wanaka–based firm and decided to move the shower unit to Haast.

The summary of facts stated Walker installed an identical gas unit using the same fitting Hale had installed and Cartwright signed it off.

Judge Bouchier said: “This was always an incident of harm waiting to happen.”

She accepted, however, the defendants were remorseful, which was clear from them cooperating with a WorkSafe investigation and changing the way they operated.

Cartwright and his company had a previously unblemished record, the judge said.

Crown prosecutor Steve Simon said the case was among the worst of its kind since there were obvious warnings against installing the unit as it was.

He said the negligence was compounded by Cartwright’s actions in certifying his colleague’s work without viewing it.

The defendant was the fail-safe who failed, Simon said.

Defence counsel Joseph Lill said Hale had stopped doing any gasfitting work after his licence was cancelled.

He stressed to the court his clients felt genuine remorse for what occurred, but accepted apologies may not have been passed on to family of the victim.

The company, Lill submitted, had reviewed its processes and such an error would never recur.

'Trust was broken'

WorkSafe’s head of high hazards, energy and public safety Darren Handforth said the gas heater should never have been installed or certified in a bathroom.

“The need for adequate ventilation was not discussed with the family.”

Handforth said the family used the heater for some time, until it was damaged when the surrounding pipework froze in the winter of 2017. In September 2018 a family member replaced the heater with a new one, of the same model, and in the same place.

A WorkSafe investigation found the replacement water heater was not faulty, and the installation of a replacement unit did not materially alter the danger.

“It never should have been installed.

“These water heaters should only be installed in spaces which meet size and ventilation requirements.

“To make matters worse, Mr Cartwright certified the 2016 installation although he had not been on that part of the site during the installation and did not inspect it or perform any tests. He did not enquire into the specifics of the work that the gasfitter had done and did not ask sufficient questions about what testing (if any) had been carried out.

“Members of the community who engage professional tradespeople to carry out gasfitting work should be able to trust the work will be done properly and will be safe for them and their families to use.

“Tragically, in this case, this trust was broken and a family now has to mourn the loss of a loved one for the rest of their lives.”

'Ripped me apart'

Before the sentencing, Justine Walker told the Herald that losing her son had left her permanently paralysed with grief and bitterness.

“It has ripped me apart. I am numb,” she said.

“I feel there is only half of me left, how is this fair on my kids to have half a mum? I’ve lost everything. I feel helpless, scared, unable to find peace or true happiness.

“I still wish every day for Jesse to come home.”

Walker was annoyed Cartwright had been able to continue operating his business.

“It is wrong he has a gas certificate and is allowed to keep on working. You teach your kids to own their mistakes and yet he can carry on – where is the accountability?

“… This wasn’t an accident. He shouldn’t have signed off the job without sighting it. As far as I am concerned, he killed my son.”

Walker said Jesse’s smile would light up a room. Popular with his friends and a good all-rounder, Jesse loved technology and photography.

“He was energetic and loved to have fun. He was driven and excited about everything he did and wanted to do. I miss his smiley face, chats and passion for life,” Walker said.

On December 19, Jesse would have turned 15.

Walker, her partner Chris, and their children Cody, 11, Zane, 10, and McKenzie, 4, gathered at his grave to eat pizza and drink beers.

“Jesse would have been a typical teenager who would’ve loved that rite of passage.

“I think about Jesse every day and what he would have been like.But as the years go by it gets harder to imagine.

“Cody is 12 this year, the same age when Jesse died. It’s not fair for him, either. I think he feels Jesse was robbed of his life.”

– Additional reporting by Carolyne Meng-Yee

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