Ardent Leisure pleaded guilty on Monday to three charges, with potential fines of up to $4.5 million, laid after a coroner found “unjustifiable” failings in Dreamworld’s safety management.
Sydney mother Cindy Low, along with Canberra mother Kate Goodchild, her brother Luke Dorsett and his partner Roozi Araghi, were killed on October 25, 2016, when the theme park’s Thunder River Rapids Ride malfunctioned.
Dreamworld chief executive John Osborne outside court after the hearing said Ardent apologised unreservedly for the “past circumstances and failures” at the theme park that resulted in the deaths.
“Ardent accepts responsibility for this tragedy, and fully accepts the court’s decision,” he said.
The court heard harrowing victim impact statements from families of victims of the 2016 Dreamworld tragedy during the sentencing hearing.
Kim Dorsett, the mother of Luke and Kate, told the court of her shock when two police officers arrived at her hotel room on the Gold Coast to tell her the news “no mother should hear”.
Ms Dorsett attended Southport Magistrates Court with her teenage granddaughter Ebony, who had been on the ride with her mother Kate, uncle Luke and his partner Mr Araghi.
“Ebony had survived the accident and was hysterical, trying to tell of the events that had taken place that afternoon,” Ms Dorsett told the court.
” ‘I couldn’t find Mummy’. These words have become a recurring nightmare. Words that will be with me until I, too, take my last breath.”
Ms Dorsett spoke of her loneliness in her terrible grief, the severe mental health consequences on herself and her family, and ongoing trauma. She described the loss of three children, “two I gave life to, and one who chose us”.
“A broken heart has no words,” she concluded her statement.
Prosecutor Aaron Guilfoyle read out other victim impact statements from Cindy Low’s brother Michael Cook, her mother-in-law Dianne Bond, and aunt Helen Cook.
Mr Cook told the court he was “an empty shell of my former self” and his sister’s death had derailed his life.
Ms Bond told of the deep loss felt by Ms Low’s death and the devastating effects across her family, saying she was the “rock, lover, best friend, confidant” to her husband Mathew.
Ms Cook described Ms Low as a “vibrant, intelligent, and very special” person.
“That Cindy died violently is unacceptable to us. Knowing her death could have been avoided is unacceptable and infuriating,” she said.
“Cindy was such a gentle, happy person. We know nothing will bring her back and all we have are precious, precious memories.”
A lengthy inquest held over six weeks in 2018 heard a litany of failures and safety issues at the park, with coroner James McDougall handing down a 300-page report earlier this year.
Mr McDougall said there had been a “systemic failure” by the theme park in relation to “all aspects” of safety and there was no evidence the park ever conducted a proper risk assessment of the ride.
He referred Dreamworld back to the Office of Industrial Relations, which later laid the three charges against Dreamworld, each with a maximum potential fine of $1.5 million.
Ardent Leisure issued an unreserved apology to all the family and friends of the four victims, with the apology read out by its lawyer Bruce Hodgkinson QC in court on Monday morning.
Cindy Low’s husband Mathew, and Kate and Luke’s father Shayne, joined the hearing by videolink from interstate and overseas.
Mr Guilfoyle told the court what happened on the day of October 25, 2016, telling the court the incident occurred when one of two water pumps for the Thunder River Rapids Ride failed.
The raft in which the four victims were travelling collided with another empty raft on the ride’s conveyor belt, inverting both rafts and almost immediately killing all four.
Cindy’s son Kieran, 10 at the time, and Ms Goodchild’s daughter Ebony, then 12, escaped without injury.
Mr Guilfoyle told the court an emergency stop button that would have stopped the conveyor within two seconds was not used; instead, a slow-stop button that took eight seconds was used to stop the ride.
He told the court there was confusion amongst Dreamworld ride operators, who had differing tiers of responsibility, about which stop button should or could be used under ride guidelines.
All four victims were killed almost immediately.
Mr Guilfoyle detailed a host of safety measures Dreamworld could have implemented at “minimal” cost such as reworking the ride’s stop buttons and operation panel to reduce confusion and ensured ride operators had more and thorough training.
He noted many audit reports conducted for Dreamworld in the years before the incident had made recommendations to reduce the complexity of the ride’s operation and ensure an emergency stop button was clearly labelled and operational.
Magistrate Dowse said Ardent Leisure’s efforts to improve safety standards on the ride before the incident “were grossly below the standards that was rightly expected of it”.
“A variety of control measures were available which would have eliminated the relevant risk. It was a company which had available to it resources to implement those control measures,” she said.
She said the company knew of the risks of rafts overturning, after previous incidents in 2001 and 2013, and did not address it.
However, she noted Ardent Leisure accepted the statement of facts, did not dispute its role in the tragedy, and had pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity.
She also noted Dreamworld had significantly increased its safety at the park since the “dreadful and unspeakable incident”.
A conviction was recorded and Ardent Leisure has a month to pay the fine.
Lucy is the urban affairs reporter for the Brisbane Times, with a special interest in Brisbane City Council.