Would the threat of legal action improve the New Zealand workplace?

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New Zealand companies that commit corporate manslaughter should face the possibility of being sued, according to a commercial law expert.

Professor Susan Watson, University of Auckland Business School, believes that New Zealand should consider adopting the model that exists in other countries where companies can be sued for personal injury.

“New Zealand’s ACC is unique – it’s what differentiates us from the rest of the world. But perhaps it also doesn’t incentivise companies to work hard enough to ensure workplace safety is strictly adhered to,” she commented.

Watson is conducting a study on workplace safety and has found, in her preliminary research, that New Zealand has very high serious injury statistics and around double the rate of workplace fatalities as Australia.

She believes that New Zealand’s Accident Compensation Corporation system, which prevents people from suing companies, has created a corporate environment in which penalties are too feeble and individuals are not held accountable. If companies could be sued, it might spur them to take greater responsibility for workplace safety.

“Heavier fines and the chance of being sued might just be the economic incentive they need to get our statistics trending downwards,” Watson said.

In the current environment, in which no one is blamed and fines are low, the inducements to improve workplace safety are insufficient. “The corporate entity itself has no conscience, no matter what individuals within the corporation think. When workplace tragedies happen and organisational fault is apportioned, there’s no reason for corporations to improve safety levels because they can’t be sued under New Zealand law for personal injury, and the monetary penalties for health and safety breaches are small,” Watson argued.

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