The family of Folole Muliaga is likely to seek compensation from Mercury Energy and Counties Manukau District Health Board following the release of the coroner’s inquest into her death in May last year.
Muliaga, 45, a morbidly obese woman who was using an oxygen machine, died at her Mangere home three hours after a contractor to Mercury Energy disconnected her power over an unpaid bill of $168.40.
Coroner Gordon Matenga said he agreed with two of the four medical experts who testified before him at an inquest in May that the disconnection of power to her oxygen machine contributed to her death from morbid obesity.
“The cessation of oxygen therapy and the stress arising from the fact of the disconnection (as opposed to the way in which the power was disconnected) have contributed to her death,” he said.
Matenga also noted that Mercury Energy admitted it didn’t comply with Electricity Commission guidelines over identifying vulnerable customers at the time of Muliaga’s death, but had made great strides since then.
He also recommended Counties Manukau DHB review its communications with morbidly obese patients and their families about the care of such patients when they are discharged.
Muliaga family spokesman Brenden Sheehan said the family would be “instructing solicitors to explore all legal avenues” following the findings.
“The coroner established there was a cause and effect over her death, and that Mercury Energy didn’t follow the guidelines of the Electricity Commission,” Sheehan said.
“We’re also looking at options against the hospital (Counties Manukau DHB), particularly over informing the family about her care.”
Sheehan said he hoped the family and the agencies involved could come to some agreement to prevent the case having to come before the courts.
Olinda Woodroffe, the lawyer for Muliaga’s husband Lopaaeva, said she was confident there were strong legal grounds for compensation.
She said it was pleasing Mercury Energy had improved its procedures for vulnerable customers but said it had a legal obligation to do so before Muliaga’s death.
Matenga largely exonerates the Vircom contractor who switched Muliaga’s power off.
The contractor, whose name is suppressed, told the inquest he did not hear an alarm sounding from Muliaga’s oxygen machine after the power was disconnected and that he had not been told she needed the power for medical reasons.
“I am satisfied that had either Ietitaia Muliaga (her son) or Mrs Muliaga told Mr A (the contractor) that electricity was needed to run a machine which provided oxygen to Mrs Muliaga that Mr A would have exercised his discretion in favour of no disconnection.”