Joe Howard death: Man found guilty

TRAGEDY: Robert Richards on his way to Wagga Local Court

TRAGEDY: Robert Richards on his way to Wagga Local Court


IT STARTED out as two mates enjoying an afternoon of water-skiiing but ended with one of them dead and the other wearing the blame.

In Wagga Local Court on Friday, 52-year-old Lockhart man Robert Richards was found guilty of operating a recreational vessel negligently causing death.

Richards was driving a boat towing Joe Howard, the 34-year-old Wagga father of three and general manager of Rundles Auctions, on February 22 last year.

Just after barefoot skiier Mr Howard jumped off the bank and into the water at the Colombo Creek Ski Club Reserve he hit a tree stump and suffered fatal injuries.

The court heard Richards, who pleaded not guilty, did not have an observer on the boat.

This was in contravention of Section 33(1)(a) of the Maritime Safety (General) Regulation 2009.

A two-day hearing into the charge was held last month.

In handing down his judgment, magistrate Michael Antrum noted that by all accounts, Richards was ordinarily a responsible man who enjoyed the trust and respect of all who knew him, including Mr Howard, described as a capable and very experienced barefoot skiier.

But Richards made the fatal mistake - for some reason - of not having an observer on his boat despite there being other people on the bank.

"A prudent operator in these circumstances would have complied with the law and ensured a rear-facing observer was on board the vessel towing Mr Howard," Mr Antrum said.

"The failure to have an observer amounts to conduct which represents a departure from the standard of care expected of a prudent operator and, in my view, is conduct which is criminally negligent."

Mr Antrum said the safety of the skiier should have been of paramount consideration and the presence of an observer should have been the starting point for addressing that consideration.

Richards was convicted, placed on a 15-month good behaviour bond and disqualified from holding a boating licence for three months.

In his sentencing remarks, Mr Antrum described the

accident as a tragedy beyond belief.

"It was a tragedy for Mr Howard and it was a tragedy for his family, but the impact it must have had on you and your family is not lost on the court," Mr Antrum said to Richards.

Mr Antrum said there was an issue of general deterrence that needed to be addressed.

"In this case it (no observer) was an oversight, but it was a critical oversight," Mr Antrum said.

"The bottom line in all of this in terms of general deterrence is there can be no short cuts when it comes to safety.

"Don't let enthusiasm for the moment overcome normal good sense."

Mr Antrum said it would have been easy for Richards to have another person on the shore come on the boat as an observer.

Two back-up charges were withdrawn after Richards was found guilty of the most serious offence.