Coroner refers fatal Australian theme park accident to prosecutor

SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian theme park on Monday was referred to an industrial prosecutor by the coroner looking into an accident on a river rapids ride that killed four people, saying the operator ignored warnings and failed to do adequate safety checks.

Two men and two women, including a brother and sister, died almost instantly when two rafts collided then flipped onto the mechanical ramp of the Thunder River Rapids Ride at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast, one of Australia’s main tourist districts, in 2016.

The coroner’s finding that the theme park was ultimately responsible and the referral to a prosecutor raises the prospect it will be charged with breaching workplace laws. The relatives of the dead have long accused the company of wrongdoing.

Shares of the Dreamworld owner Ardent Leisure Group Ltd fell 16% after a long inquest report was published on Monday, adding to hefty falls already besetting tourism stocks due to fears of a global spread of China’s coronavirus outbreak.

“There is evidence Dreamworld never conducted a proper risk assessment of the Thunder River Rapid ride in its 30 years of operation,” wrote Queensland state coroner James McDougall in his report.

Dreamworld knew of risks because of previous incidents on the same ride but “failed to take any steps to rectify it” and never undertook a full engineering risk assessment of the ride, which was “particularly troubling having regard to the previous incidents already documented”.

While the Queensland Office of Industrial Relations had previously investigated the incident, McDougall wrote that it was “reasonably suspected that Ardent Leisure may have committed an offence under workplace law” and the prosecutor could use the inquest findings to consider prosecution.

Ardent, the Dreamworld owner, said in a statement the company would build a memorial garden in the theme park and that it was committed to working with the workplace safety authorities to bring about new safety measures, as recommended by the coroner.

“Safety is the team’s number one priority and they are proactively focused on continuous improvements to safety across the park in the areas of ride safety and reliability, training of ride operators, emergency management procedures, safety management systems and safety governance,” the statement said.

The company did not specifically comment on the referral to the prosecutor.

Ardent has already paid some A$5 million ($3.3 million) in over 20 compensation lawsuits by people affected by the 2016 incident, according to local media.

Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Shri Navaratnam