A major Australian government contractor facing workplace safety charges has launched legal action against the Australian Capital Territory's coroner's court in a bid to prevent its chief pilot from being compelled to give evidence.
Helicopter pilot captain David Wood died in Antarctica last year during a routine delivery of fuel drums when he fell down a crevasse after stepping out of his helicopter.
He became wedged in the ice and was later retrieved, but died the next day from hypothermia. His death is currently the subject of an inquiry by the ACT Coroner, which is in the midst of conducting public hearings that are set to resume in May.
Following the first round of inquest hearings, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions filed three charges against Wood's employer Helicopter Resources Pty Ltd in December 2017 alleging failures of workplace and safety laws. One charge has also been brought against the environment department. Those cases are distinct from the coroner's inquiry and will be heard in the ACT magistrates' court.
Helicopter Resources Pty Ltd sought to have the coronial case delayed until the criminal case was resolved, but the ACT coroner opposed its adjournment application. The coroner then issued a subpoena to David Lomas, the chief pilot of the company, to give evidence when the inquiry recommences in early May. Lomas was not on the flight with Wood.
But the company has taken the unusual step of commencing legal action against the Commonwealth government and the ACT coroner in the federal court to prevent Lomas from being called to give evidence.
The company has sought judicial review of the coroner's decision to call Lomas to give evidence on the basis that it was an improper exercise of their power.
It is challenging the decision because it says that by compelling Lomas to give evidence at the inquest will provide the government "opportunities not available to it in the criminal process ... to seek admissions which will be admissible against the applicant in the proceeding".
The company argues that it "may provide to the prosecutor on the information opportunities not available to him in the criminal process" and under workplace safety laws.
It also argues that the coroner's decision to call Lomas "was so unreasonable that no reasonable person could have exercised the power".
The case has been filed this week and will be set down for an urgent hearing next Monday.
Helicopter Resources Pty Ltd is a major Australian government contractor. It has received substantial contracts from government agencies such as the Department of the Environment and Energy, and has been regularly commissioned for flights across the Antarctic.