Suspend the lynch mob

May 30th, 2007 at 10:10 pm by David Farrar

My first reaction, like almost everyone, was to be appalled at Mercury Energy for their role in the death of Auckland woman Folole Muliaga. But over the day as lynch mobs proclaimed them guilty of murder, I felt more and more uncomfortable.

The death of Folole Muliaga is incredibly sad, as it appears to have been entirely preventable. And the manner of death, in front of her family, is tragic for them. One can only empathise with them for their loss. I also have empathy for the hundreds of staff of Mercury Energy. I am sure they are all devastated at what is alleged to have happened, and it would have been an awful day to work for them.

However the facts of what happened are not yet known, and appear to be in some dispute. Empathy should not become a reason for suspending critical reasoning.

Mercury Energy, as one would hope, do have a policy to not disconnect power if they are aware of a householder being medically dependent on continued power supply. Now the policy may not be identical to other companies in that they require verification, but unless the facts are that the company was told, requested verification and upon not getting it immediately deliberately decided to terminate the power anyway (which I certainly would condemn), their policy is not a problem.

What appears to have happened is one of three scenarios:

(1) The family did tell the contractor that the termination of electricity would have life threatening consequences, and he understood this and decided to proceed anyway – against his own company’s policy. Words will be insufficient to condemn that, if that is the case. I can’t imagine there are many people who if they understand a power cut would lead to someone dying, would in any way proceed. The contractor has denied this is the case so for scenario 1 to apply, he must be a liar.

(2) The The family did tell the contractor that the termination of electricity would have life threatening consequences, but tragically he failed to understand this. The Police investigation will look at this. A failure to understand does not get Mercury and the contractor off the hook, as it will come down to whether such a failure to understand was reasonable in the circumstances, and what are the detailed procedures for such situations.

(3) The family did not tell the contractor that the termination of electricity would have life threatening consequences. I make no allegation that this is the case, but recognise this is a possibility. Many family members are saying they definitely did, but it is far from clear how many were actually present for the encounter.

Electricity companies disconnect probably hundreds of customers for non or late payment every day. It is a routine event. I should know as it has happened to me. And for it to happen, one has to have ignored (for Meridian anyway) at least two statements, a specific warning letter, a phone call and a telegram all warning of disconnection.

It is also worth noting that she was not on a full breathing machine, where death is automatic if it stops. The machine was for people with a chronic, mildly reduced level of oxygen in their blood, typically those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. It has no battery backup, so if there was an unexpected power cut it would not be suitable for someone who can not breathe without it. And the doctors say that they are surprised being without it for a couple of hours caused death. In fact the cause of death is assumed, not known.

Finally, it has to be acknowledge there are a number of things the family could have done to mitigate what happened. I state these not as an excuse for Mercury Energy if they were informed, and ignored the information, but as a recognition that the death was seemingly avoidable.

(1) Use the standard letter from the hospital about the need for power, and send it to the electricity company.
(2) Pay the power bills on time, if one is able to, if life is dependent on it as a priority over other bills.
(3) Ask WINZ for a special needs grant if you are having problems paying
(4) At every single stage of the being warned you are overdue and may be terminated, ring up or write to the power company and make sure they understand your medical condition. Preferably in writing so there is less of a chance of mistake
(5) If you are not well positioned to do (4) yourself go to a community group like Citizens Advice Bureau who could help. Your doctor will I am sure help also.
(6) If you do lose power, despite the above, immediately send for an ambulance to take you to hospital

Now again, just because the family may not have done any or all of the above, is no excuse if it was made clear to Mercury’s contractor that there was a threat to life if power was cut off. But as Trevor Mallard says, the facts are in dispute, and we should be patient and let the authorities do an investigation. This is potentially a homicide investigation, so it will be taken seriously I am sure.

As I said at the beginning it is a terrible time for both the family, and to a lesser degree also the staff of Mercury Energy. It is not a time for kneejerk responses.


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