How much is a life worth?

May 31 2007 by Nicola Hunt Print This Article

New Zealand power company Mercury Energy has suddenly gained itself an international reputation – as an object global outrage – after cutting off the power supply to a gravely-ill mother of four, Folole Muliaga, who was dependent on an oxygen machine.

As the media across the world has has reported, a contractor working for Mercury Energy stood in front of the 44-year-old nursery teacher after he cut the power supply and, with the alarm of her oxygen machine sounding, said that he was only doing his job.

Within ten minutes she began to suffer a severe headache and said that she could not see. She died within two hours.

And all this for an outstanding bill of just £62 ($120).

Doug Heffernan, CEO of (state owned) Mercury Energy's parent company, Mighty River Power, said that there were at least two different versions of the circumstances surrounding Mrs Muliaga's death but that "we absolutely do agree, as does I think everyone in New Zealand, that no one should ever die because the power is cut off".

I cannot even begin to imagine the culture of an organization whose staff or contractors (who are equally liable for their actions) feel obliged to go to such lengths to follow orders without questioning the consequence of their actions.

Does Mercury Energy have a workforce of drones, is it afflicted by a particularly hideous case of 'public sector culture' or could this simply have been a hideous one-off error of judgment?

"I was only doing my job" wasn't a defence that was accepted in the Nuremberg Trials and shouldn't be one that is accepted here.

Any organization with even the smallest inkling about ethics or good customer service should empower its people to make a judgment call or at least refer an issue if necessary. Sometimes having an ounce of common sense (or just common decency), really can be a matter of life or death.