Gas blast: judge slams Esso
By NORRIE ROSS and NEIL WILSON
31jul01 Herald Sun
THE spectre of a billion-dollar class action haunted Esso yesterday after a judge hit it with a record $2 million fine over the fatal Longford gas explosion.
Justice Phillip Cummins said the disaster was no accident and it was entirely the fault of the company and not its "brave and loyal workers".
Esso Australia's embattled chairman, Robert Olsen, skirted the question of blame after the sentence was handed down.
"Esso did not, and does not, blame anyone for this accident," Mr Olsen said, ignoring the judge's comments that the explosion had not been an accident.
The American said he was sorry for what happened at Longford, but refused to accept Esso was responsible, citing the huge civil legal battle ahead.
"There's significant continuing litigation in this matter," he said.
As Mr Olsen spoke, lawyer Nick Styant-Browne, who acts for thousands of Victorians suing Esso, stood a metre away.
Mr Styant-Browne, a partner at Slater and Gordon, said the judge's comments and jury verdict helped with the huge civil claim and in establishing liability.
"We don't need an apology from Esso to prove liability," he said. "The case is a very strong one. They've been beaten once in the royal commission, they've lost before a jury, they'll lose again in a class action."
Justice Cummins said Esso's dereliction of duty had led to two workers being killed and eight seriously injured and the company had tried to hide what happened.
The judge said the explosion, which left Victorians without gas supplies for two weeks, had been the result of serious safety breaches.
None of the workers or supervisors had been aware of the danger lurking at the gas plant.
There had been a lack of training, safety systems, and procedures to deal with a major emergency.
"The events of September 25, 1998, were the responsibility of Esso, no one else," Justice Cummins said.
"Their cause was grievous, foreseeable and avoidable. Their consequences were grievous, tragic and avoidable.
"What occurred at gas plant one was no mere accident. To use the term 'accident' denotes a lack of understanding of the responsibility (of Esso) and lack of understanding of the case."
Esso was found guilty by a Supreme Court jury last month of 11 criminal charges of breaching the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Two workers, Peter Wilson and John Lowery died at Longford.
Each charge carried a maximum penalty of $250,000 and the judge imposed the maximum on two of the counts.
He also imposed extra fines of $50,000 on four charges because the company had prior health and safety convictions.
The total fine of $2 million was a record for health and safety charges in Australia.
Justice Cummins singled out several workers for praise, including control panel operator Jim Ward, who was blamed by Esso at the royal commission for the explosion.
"Mr Ward and the other employees did not fail Esso failed," said the judge. "These tragic events will always live with these decent, impressive and brave men."
The remorse shown by Mr Olsen and other Esso executives was genuine, said Justice Cummins, but it had not been translated into reality by the company.
The judge said Esso tried to blame its workers and during the trial tried to hide what happened by putting forward a convoluted and obscure scenario.
Esso was also guilty, he said, of a lamentable inability to accept responsibility and showed a lack of remorse.
"Esso's failure still to accept responsibility for these tragic events is a serious deficiency," Justice Cummins said.
Australian Workers Union state secretary Bill Shorten described the $2 million fine as a speeding ticket to Esso and said it was clear Esso had tried to blame Mr Ward and others during the royal commission.
"The judge made it very clear that their strategy of blaming the operators was lamentable and indeed influenced in the severity of the fines which they received," Mr Shorten said.
He said the sentence would allow Esso's workers to "put this tragic, unnecessary, wasteful incident behind them".
Premier Steve Bracks said the judgment would give Longford workers involved some comfort.
WorkCover chief executive Bill Mountford said the decision underlined the responsibility on employers to train their workforces.
"The courts and the community are very serious about enforcing these obligations," he said.
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