Wednesday, May 30, 2007

This should not happen in New Zealand

An Auckland woman has died after her electricity company - Mercury Energy, for the curious - cut off power to her Oxygen machine. While Libertarians and other propertarian absolutists will shrug their shoulders and say "she should have paid her bill", I think the vast majority of us would agree that there are moral limits to the market, and that capitalism does not extend to the heartless killing of the ill simply because they can't afford to pay their bills. Poverty and illness should not be a death sentence - or, in this case, an invitation to murder.

I use that word, and I mean it. Mercury Energy has, through its subcontractor, murdered one of its customers. Section 157 of the Crimes Act creates a duty to avoid dangerous omissions to life. Section 164 makes it clear that accelerating the death of someone already ill is killing them. And section 160 (2) (b) makes it a culpable homicide. As for murder vs manslaughter, the person disconnecting the power was told that the victim relied on it for life support, and they did it anyway. That makes it intentional - murder (in the US they would call it "depraved indifference").

Unfortunately, that only gets the subcontractor, and Mercury will likely be able to use them as a way to avoid blame (that is after all one of the reasons to contract services out - to diffuse responsibility for failure, to give you people to point fingers at. Just look at the government and DHBs). But we should be asking some very pointy questions of Mercury as well. For example, whether they knew the power was used for life support (they ask when you get connected, but obviously may not have been told if it was due to a change in circumstances). Or whether they set a clear policy for their subcontractors of not disconnecting the power when someone says they need it for health reasons. Or whether they set perverse incentives, such as paying only for disconnections. They may not be able to be prosecuted, but depending on their answers they may share a large amount of culpability. And they should be held responsible for it.


As a libertarian and "property absolutist" as you describe. Yes, she should have paid her bill. She did not have a "right" to power in that it imposed obligations on Mercury.

That said. It is truely horrible what happened, and the market will punish Mercury for this. I can see a lot of people not being happy and moving providers, and it will likely be a PR disaster for them, as there is no right answer. I'd had to be the PR guy right now.

While I don't think that Mercury should have an obligation to provide anyone power who isn't paying the bills - I think its terrible business sense to be cutting off what is in essence a lifeline to customers.

I hope that makes sense.

Posted by deleted : 5/30/2007 10:46:00 AM

There comes a point where the supply of the essentials of life - and in this case electricity fell into that category - becomes a human right, rather than a commercial luxury. Mercury should be condemned for their actions, and prosecuted to the limits of the law.

This is the second case in a week of an SOE simply abandoning all ethical standards in order to pursue money at all costs. Trevor Mallard should be asking some very hard questions of these morally bankrupt CEOs.

- Clarke

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 11:13:00 AM

Murder under s 167(d) of the Crimes Act - the paragraph which makes a homocide murder if the act done is likely to cause death required requires that act to be done for an unlawful object - I'm not sure the avoidance of a duty under s 157 qualifies.

As to whether s 157 even applied to the sub-contractor, I'm unconvinced. The act the sub-contractor has undertaken to do is likely to be to disconnect power - the omission of this act is not dangerous to life. It is Mercury themselves who have undertaken to provide electricity, and in this case their omission to provide electricity which is dangerous.

That said, my first thought was manslaughter, but then I thought, wait - knowlegde of action likely to cause death (and reckless as to whether death ensues) - maybe this is murder? But I've yet to find an unlawful object from either the sub-contractor or the company - so I'm afraid murder may be off the table.

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 5/30/2007 11:17:00 AM

MikeE, you quite correctly point out that this is a PR and business disaster for Mercury, but it also sounds from what you have written, that you think that what Mercury (or its subcontractor) did was wrong because it has a bad impact on business.

Very basically, cutting off the electricity was wrong because the woman died. That's the basic source of wrongness in this event.

The bad impact on business is just a byproduct of the basic wrongness.

It will be interesting to hear more details, especially about Mercury's procedures, and whether or not they were followed, but if Mercury's procedures were followed, and if the procedures allowed for this disconnect to happen, then Mercury should be indicted for running its business in such a way that people will die. That is, if its procedures allowed this to happen, then its procedures are criminally negligent, and as I/S said, they should be charged.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 11:31:00 AM

I'm not even sure that this event can be used to slate money-hungry corporations. If you read the article Mercury does have a policy in place to avoid this type of event occurring. The fault seems to lie with the person who actually turned up at the house to switch off the electricity. He was the one who ignored the family's protests. Also, shouldn't life-support machines have a backup power supply? What would have happened if this had been an accidental power cut?

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 11:44:00 AM

mikee, how about a bit of commonsense, you know, something like "Its a good idea not to kill people?"

Posted by Sanctuary : 5/30/2007 11:47:00 AM


While I don't think that Mercury should have an obligation to provide anyone power who isn't paying the bills

That pretty much sums it up. While what happened is tragic for the victim & her family, need is not a claim: the fact that the woman needed the power didn't give her the right to demand it from the power company.

That said though, if it were my power company, heads would be rolling right now, for the aforementioned PR reasons. In the (rare) case of a patient dependant upon medical equipment, publicly gifting her the power would have made a whole lot more sense than cutting it off.


There comes a point where the supply of the essentials of life - and in this case electricity fell into that category - becomes a human right

If you accept that premise - that if someone has sufficient need for a good, it becomes their right to have it - then you must force others to provide it if they can't.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 11:55:00 AM

I think there is more to the story than what is being told.

1) Don't these machines have a battery reserve in case of power failure.

2) Why didn't the family or the person call 111 if the power was cut-off and you need power to keep the machine going.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 12:19:00 PM

I love the humanity and charity of libertarians.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 12:23:00 PM


Your so called 'humanity' involves forcing some people to pay for the needs of others.

I'm all in favour of private, voluntary charity for those who through no fault of their own are incapable of providing for themselves. I think what happened here was tragic.

But I'm not in favour of extracting 'charity' at gunpoint.

Perhaps if I turned the question around: who would you rob in order to pay for her electricity?

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 5/30/2007 12:35:00 PM

Conscience bite, did it Duncan? We can be thankful that like Destiny, libertarianism is a minority cult.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 12:46:00 PM

I think you'll be hard pressed to find a libertarian to say that Meridian did the right thing. Regardless of the straw men you try to create suggesting that.

What they are saying is that Meridian did not "murder this woman" like NZ first is claiming, and shouldn't be forced into providing power to someone who does not pay.

But, it was a fucking stupid thing of them to do... not because people have a right to electricity, regardless of whether they pay or not. But because its good business practice not to go around contributing to the death of your customers.

Wheres the personal responsibility of the family and friends of the deceased? Why is noone asking why they didn't chip in to help...

Posted by deleted : 5/30/2007 12:49:00 PM

"Who would we rob to pay her electricity ?????????".

Thats simple, we're all being bloody robbed to pay for the obscene profits and salaries that the power company’s and SOE's make.

The people and taxpayers of this country paid for ( and are the owners ) of all the power stations but you'd never know it with the way power prices have risen ahead of inflation year after year.

As the people paid for our generation and supply infrastructure it seems only right that older retired people and those who are sick receive at the very less generous discounts for the power they use.

Simple decency really

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 12:55:00 PM


I think you'll be hard pressed to find a libertarian to say that Meridian did the right thing. Regardless of the straw men you try to create suggesting that.

Don't mind I/S - he's quite prone to setting up & burning emotive straw-men when it comes to Libertarians. He's perfectly well aware that we don't approve of Mercury's actions in this case.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 01:17:00 PM

Way to go mikeee..

The woman shouldn't have been stealing Mercury's electricity. It's like filling your car up at the gas station with no way to pay for it.

They had every right to protect their property rights by cutting her power off. She was entirely responsible for stealing someone elses property - whatever sobstory she put up about needing it for life support. She ought to have thought about that before coming here and getting ill.

Next thing you know, people will be suggesting that storekeepers don't have the right to shoot people stealing food.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 01:26:00 PM

Graeme: I was going for s167(a): "if the offender means to cause the death of the person killed". We'd apply this to someone who walked into a hospital ward and, knowing what it did, dsconnected a patient's life support; I think the same applies to people similarly dependent in their homes.

Any case would hinge on the contractor's knowledge: whether they really believed that dsconnection would kill. If not, it would be manslaughter.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 5/30/2007 01:42:00 PM

There is obviously more to this -
"Counties Manukau Chief Medical Officer Don Mackie says the 44-year-old was sent home from Middlemore Hospital earlier this month. He says she had been admitted with a cardio-respiratory complaint and was discharged with a breathing support device.

"We do not expect it to be used 24 hours a day. Most people use them at night, particularly just to support their breathing and to relieve any distress from breathlessness while thy are sleeping."

Dr Mackie say he would expect people on the breathing support device would have time to seek help if the machine stopped working." NZ City News
- but it doesn't excuse the contractor from his uncaring actions!

Nor does it excuse Mercury energy - the fact that it is bad for business!! Can you believe some people!! Where did they grow up? In what part of the planetary system are they? I thank my lucky stars they are no relations of mine or have to care for me in my dotage! I'd be soon out the door, feet first, in a cardboard box. Or is there some other morality that applies only to family members?

The fact of the matter is that there are funds available for such vunerable people and I for one am more than happy to contribute via the medium of taxes. Mercury Energy and other power companies should be far more pro-active in determining the needs or otherwise of their consumers and when a customer fails to pay then maybe it would be a good idea to find out more - before simply sending and idiot round to disconnect.


Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 03:52:00 PM

I certainly find it difficult to fathom why the power was turned off.

Having said that, I have a child, who for a couple of years, required oxygen from a machine exactly the same as this poor womans. We also had some very large oxygen cylinders in the room,in case the power went off.

I would point out that my son was an out patient. It was made quite clear that he was well enough to be at home and the oxygen was not to keep him alive but rather to ease his breathing difficulties.It was made quite clear that if there was any doubt at any stage by us over his health,we were to present him at hospital.

I am surprised that this was not not the case in this instance.

I think perhaps it is prudent to wait for the outcome of an autopsy before making the definite connection between the machine going off and this death...

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 06:40:00 PM

how can anyone in NZ get into a situation where they have nothing they can save money on besides allowing one of their family to die.

that of course doesnt mean mercury should have cut them off - but cutting off the power that stops the machine that helps to keep the person healthy is only one step closer than not paying the bill that kepsthe power on that powers tha machine that keeps the person healthy.


Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 08:18:00 PM

It might also be nice if some folks wouldn't convict anyone of murder in a trial by blogisphere - especially when the central facts are, to put it mildly, contested.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 5/30/2007 08:22:00 PM

I don't think we should be accusing people of murder without the full facts in front of us. While a crime related to negligance or carelessness may well have been committed, the chances that someone deliberately decided to let this woman die seem very low. The cock up is far more likely. Let the corinor establish the facts.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 08:41:00 PM

I thought with Working for Families the poor were no longer?

Maybe this is a failure of the welfare state and socialism rather than a capitalist pig company killing people?

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 10:16:00 PM

The facts are indeed a little unclear.

But I'd bet quids on that the stress of having the power disconnected ( and begging for it not to be ) contributed to her death.

Very stressful situations are literaly life and death ones if you've got a dodgy heart.

.......... I'm very sure the contractor would have been paid on a 'per job' basis unlike an employee ( unless the company had a 'bonus' scheme ).

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 10:22:00 PM

I think MikeE's comments on this are a good example of the pernicious ability of free market philisophy to utterly corrupt people's minds.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/31/2007 12:16:00 AM

algo he escuchado en La Biblia de un hombre que recogio a otro al cual habia encontrado en el camino herido y casi muerto proque le habian asaltado y dejado medio muerto...............le llaman el Buen Samaritano...........el Buen Samaritano pago los servicios en la posada para que el herido se recuperara
estoy segura que el Buen Samaritano no era "a libertarian and property absolutist" ya que gasto su dinero en algo que no era un negocio
I'm sorry but I'cant write in english. Excuse me

Posted by Anonymous : 5/31/2007 01:12:00 AM

Maria: of course the Good Samaritan of the Biblical parable was not demonstrating "libertarian" values; libertarianism is ultimately a philosophy of selfishness (in that one's own freedoms have priority over anything else). But that is not to say that an individual libertarian cannot *freely choose* to help others. So it is possible that the Samaritan was libertarian, but ... um ... was not religious about it?

Posted by Anonymous : 5/31/2007 03:51:00 AM

I thought with Working for Families the poor were no longer?

Maybe this is a failure of the welfare state and socialism rather than a capitalist pig company killing people?

Initially husband & wife are both working and living comfortably. Then because of illness their income is reduced to one of $470/week. Before tax perhaps ?

At the same time in the Auckland property market, they are probably paying $300 plus / week in rent.

How on earth can a husband provide for 4 children, including teenagers, plus a sick wife on less than $150/week, let alone pay a power bill.

I know of solo mothers living much more comfortably than this.

Why work ? I suspect the silence from our Labour Government will be deafening !

Posted by Anonymous : 5/31/2007 12:41:00 PM

s158 defines homicide as the killing of a human being by another. So companies cannot do it, only individuals can. The mandatory prison sentence for murder is another reason a company cannot be convicted of it. But the contractor could be.

In this situation though, both the family and the contractor have plenty of reasons to lie about what was said. It's unlikely a case could be made beyond reasonable doubt as long as the contractor sticks to his story.

Posted by Nigel Kearney : 6/01/2007 07:37:00 AM

The compnay cannot be charged, but officers or staff of the company can be (not sayin there's evidence, but that's how you'd go after a company for murder/manslaughter).

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 6/01/2007 08:36:00 AM