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Engineers won't be prosecuted following earthquake collapse


There will be no prosecutions for the collapse of the CTV building in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 115 people, following the 2011 earthquake, the police have announced.

The Christchurch police had been investigating whether criminal charges of negligent manslaughter should be brought against Alan Reay and his employee David Harding, the engineers responsible for the design of the CTV building.

The force said the decision followed a complex, technical investigation which had found “significant” deficiencies in the building’s design. However, after consideration of the information it had concluded, the evidence available was not sufficient to provide a “reasonable prospect of conviction” in court, the police said.

It said there were also technical legal obstacles identified regarding the length of time after the engineers carried out their work and the disaster which presented a further barrier to prosecution.

The investigation was assisted by an independent, peer reviewed engineering report produced by New Zealand based consultant Beca. It found the design did not comply with generally accepted practices and standards of the day and appropriate reviews of the structure were not carried out.

Despite the report’s findings, the police concluded that when all the evidence and circumstances were considered, it could not be proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that the particular defendant’s conduct was a “major departure” from the standard of care expected of a reasonable person in the circumstances. 

Crown Law deputy solicitor-general (criminal) Brendan Horsley said in a statement: ”This can be a difficult threshold to meet. It requires the jury to be sure that the conduct was so bad that it deserves to be condemned as a serious crime.  

”The prosecution must also prove that the defendant’s negligence caused the death of the individual or individuals concerned, although it need not be the only cause. This too can be difficult, especially where an extreme event such as a natural disaster intervenes.”   

Horsley said that while the prosecution case was supported by Beca’s report, it was not “trial by expert” and the guidelines on whether to prosecute required consideration of other evidence, as well as of likely defences.

Horsley said a key difficulty for the prosecution would be in proving the CTV building would not have collapsed in the absence of the identified design errors. The expert peer reviewers were also cautious about drawing this conclusion he said.

Detective superintendent Peter Read said: “We are acutely aware that there will be disappointment with this decision, particularly for the families and friends of those who died in this tragedy. The issues have been very difficult and finely balanced, particularly as the advice and expert opinion has evolved as the investigation progressed.

“Ultimately, the decision must be based on the evidence before us and the thresholds we must meet.

“It is not simply a matter of letting the court decide. Before we put a criminal case before the court we must be satisfied that there is a reasonable prospect of conviction based on the evidence available. Any prosecution must prove its case ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. These tests apply to any criminal matter which we put before the court.”

New Civil Engineer has tried to contact Alan Reay, at the time of the work practicing as Alan M. Reay Consulting Engineer, ARCE, and later a director of ARCL. It has been unable to contact David Harding, employee of ARCE and designer of the CTV building.

Beca report summary of the engineering failings 

The collapse was initiated by loss of stiffness in one or more beam-column joints resulting in column axial failure. The capacity and stiffness of the joint was “significantly reduced” by the lack of transverse and shear reinforcement and this was a significant contributor to the collapse.

It said once the collapse of the columns was initiated there was no ability for the gravity loads to be redistributed to adjacent columns. This resulted in the remaining columns being progressively overloaded, leading to the pancaking collapse of one floor on top of another.

The assessment then stated in its opinion that if the building had been designed in accordance with, and was compliant with, the codes of the day, it would not have collapsed in the pancaking form it did.

It went on to say the detailing had not been sufficient for flexure or ductility, there had been mathematical errors in the calculations, Reay had not provided sufficient reviews of the design and Harding, despite being a senior engineer, was inexperienced in multi-storey design.

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