Inquest into death of Peter Howard outside Athol Park workplace to continue, SA Deputy Coroner rules

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An inquest into the death of an Adelaide man in a car fire outside his workplace will go ahead, with his family’s concerns around compensation largely resolved.

WARNING: This article discusses issues which may distress some readers.

Peter Howard died in a car fire outside the Orora fibre packaging plant in Athol Park, in Adelaide’s north-west, in August 2018.

He purchased fuel the morning of his death, and his car exploded in the street a short time later.

In opening submissions, the Coroner’s Court heard Mr Howard kept diaries for close to two decades, detailing incidents of workplace bullying at the company.

Those incidents included being “screamed at” by co-workers, being called names, spoken to in a sarcastic manner, having machinery interfered with and being repeatedly poked in the ribs.

A factory with a logo saying ORORA on it
Peter Howard died outside the Orora packaging factory in Athol Park.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

Mr Howard’s family members said they believed his unexpected death had been a suicide, but the inquest heard the court would not be proceeding under that “assumption”.

On the third day of the inquest, the family asked for it to be called off over concerns a final finding other than suicide could impact the compensation already paid to Mr Howard’s wife under the Return to Work Act.

In handing down his decision on Friday, Deputy Coroner Ian White said he did not have the legal power to abandon an inquest in the circumstances, without making any finding regarding a “reportable death”.

He said he believed it was important that the inquest continue.

“It has been hard to see and hear the distress of Mr Howard’s family in the past week,” Mr White said.

“I have considered [Mrs Howard’s] position in making my decision.

“I do find it is still necessary and desirable to continue this inquest.

“Mr Howard reported on occasion to be very upset about the actions of his co-workers [and] it is clear Mr Howard did not consider these … to be minor at all.”

Mr White said “important issues” such as mental health had been raised, and “important recommendations” could be made to “prevent this from ever being repeated”.

A family of four stand outside court holding a framed photo of their loved one
Mr Howard’s sister Carmel Schwartz (second from left) says the family are pleased the inquest is continuing. (ABC News: Isabel Dayman)

SafeWork SA investigated Mr Howard’s death and determined to not take action against the company.

In a statement released at the beginning of the proceedings, Orora Ltd said it took its “responsibilities for the health, safety and wellbeing of our people extremely seriously”.

The inquest has previously heard evidence regarding the company’s policies and procedures around workplace complaints, as well as details of training provided to employees.

Family now comfortable with inquest proceeding

On Friday, the family’s lawyer, Andrea Madeley, tendered a letter from Return to Work SA.

She told the court the letter had “informed Mrs Howard that there would be no redetermination of her lump sum entitlement”, but a question remained about her weekly income support.

The inquest will resume next month, with the family expected to receive support from a barrister pro bono.

Outside court, Mr Howard’s sister, Carmel Schwartz, said the question over a lump sum payment made to Mr Howard’s wife was no longer a concern.

“We can’t put Sharon’s and the boys’ financial security at risk so that was why we had asked for an abandonment,” she said.

Ms Schwartz said the family were now comfortable with the inquest proceeding.

“We’re hopeful that Peter’s case is going to get a fair hearing,” she said.

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