Health and Safety Obligations for Schools: Board of Trustees Charged Over Abbey Caves Death

Health and Safety / 23 May 2024
Health and Safety Obligations for Schools: Board of Trustees Charged Over Abbey Caves Death

WorkSafe has charged the Whangarei Boys High School (WBHS) Board of Trustees (Board) for health and safety failures relating to the death of a student, 15-year-old Karnin Petera, who was on a school trip a year ago.


On Tuesday 9 May 2023, 15 year 11 boys and two adults from WHBS took a school trip to the Abbey Caves as a part of a high school outdoor education class.  Due to heavy rain, the group got caught in a flash flood, resulting in Karnin being swept away in rising floodwaters.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, it was discovered that the trip went ahead despite:

  • The region being forecasted for heavy rain and thunderstorms on the day and Northland being under an “orange” rain warning.
  • The concerns of a parent who pulled his son out of the trip last minute, simultaneously contacting the school asking, “Are you still heading to Abbey Caves with the forecast for tomorrow?”.
  • Having a detailed risk assessment plan and standard operating procedures.

WorkSafe Charges

WorkSafe charged the Board, for failing to comply with sections 36(1)(a) and 36(2), and with an offence under sections 48(1) and 2(c) of the Health of Safety at Work Act 2015 (Act). In particular, WorkSafe alleges:

  • The Board had a responsibility to ensure, as far as reasonably possible, that the health and safety of others is not endangered by work activities.  This duty was not fulfilled during the outdoor education caving activity. This failure put other individuals, including Karnin Petera, at risk of death or serious injury.
  • The Board had a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers who work for the PCBU while they were at work in the business or undertaking.  There was a failure to comply with this duty while undertaking the outdoor education caving activity, and that failure exposed workers to a risk of death or serious injury.

A conviction for the Board carries a maximum fine of $1,500,000.

Message for Boards of Trustees and Directors

These charges, along with previous charges against two other School Boards and a rise in officer prosecutions send a strong message that Boards have health and safety obligations and they must ensure the workplaces they govern are safe.


At Copeland Ashcroft, many of us sit on and advise various Boards.  We recognize the important role that volunteer and other Boards play, and the challenges in keeping up with legal responsibilities in tricky areas like health and safety.

To help with this, we’re offering a fixed price one hour training session for Boards (to be delivered virtually or in person at a meeting) covering:

  • Officers’ duties and due diligence obligations.
  • Practical best practice tips for achieving these.
  • Short takeaway guide as reference tool.

To take advantage of this offer, available until 30 June 2024, contact:

We can also assist by providing your Board with:

  • Support and governance advice.
  • Regular case law updates.
  • In house training.
  • Health and safety GAPs analysis.
  • Fixed price policies.

Disclaimer: We remind you that while this article provides commentary on employment law, health and safety and immigration topics, it should not be used as a substitute for legal or professional advice for specific situations. Please seek legal advice from your lawyer for any questions specific to your workplace.


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