LEC defies Ombudsman over ‘negligence’ claim

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Keiso Mohloboli

TWENTY-FOUR years on, the Lesotho Electricity Company (LEC) still refuses to compensate the family of ’Mateboho Ratšoane of Mohale’s Hoek who was electrocuted after coming into contact with a faulty LEC electricity pole in December 1994.

The parastatal only gave Ms Ratšoane’s children, Rethabile (31) and Khosi Mafura (28) the same electrical pole that killed their mother for use in making fire during their mother’s funeral.

The MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism recently discovered that despite numerous recommendations by the Ombudsman, LEC had stood grounds it was not responsible for the death of Ms Ratšoane (née Nkhathatseng Mafura).

Ms Ratšoane was electrocuted when she came into contact with electricity current from the pole and died on the spot in December 1994.

The pole had fallen close to a path which Ms Ratšoane used and she was electrocuted by the live current which flowed from it after heavy rains that had hit the Ha-Maphohloane community in Mohale’s Hoek a few days before the fateful day.

Ms Ratšoane had been in the company of some children who escaped unscathed but had to suffer the trauma of witnessing her meet her tragic end.

The Centre has learnt from documented evidence at the office of Ombudsman that two days before Ms Ratšoane’s death, fellow villagers had reported to LEC in Mohale’s Hoek that the fallen pole posed a great danger to lives and asked the parastatal to remove it. However, their warning went unheeded, with tragic consequences.

The company argues in its correspondence with Ombudsman that the fateful incident was an “act of God, and any claim would be nothing but enrichment attempt which LEC can unfortunately not entertain.”

In an interview with the Centre this week, the LEC risk manager, Matšeliso Moremoholo, said the company’s compensation policy had a clause on public liability, “which caters for incidents whereby consumer’s property has been electrocuted or damaged as a result of power problems”.

The same clause, Ms Moremoholo said, also covered claims of persons who were electrocuted.

“All claims regarding damaged property and electrocuted people are supposed to be registered with the company. The LEC then makes its own investigations before any compensation is made,” Ms Moremoholo said.

Ms Moremoholo said with respect to Ms Ratšoane’s case, no decision had been made. She said the Ombudsman’s determination was submitted to the LEC management who in turn presented the claims before the company’s board of directors.

“The matter had since been referred to the board. It has not been finalised as it awaits the board’s decision,” she said.

Meanwhile, the evidence from Ombudsman shows that during the funeral, the LEC representatives who joined mourners pledged to the grieving family that the company would take care of the school needs for the deceased’s children, Rethabile and Khosi, who were then only seven and four years old respectively.

But this did not happen, the Ombudsman heard.

Fifteen years later in 2008, Rethabile reported the LEC’s negligence and injustice to her family to the Ombudsman.

She explained that even though she was still young at the time of her mother’s death, she vividly remembered that the LEC staff at the funeral had promised that the family would be compensated and their school needs would be paid for by the company.

In the LEC’s letter of response to Ombudsman dated May 27 2018, the company’s corporate services manager, only identified in the documents as Mr Jimson, noted among other things that circumstances surrounding Ms Ratšoane’s death may not to have been reported with the company’s insurance.

However, Jimson noted that “the LEC will investigate the matter and will include in its investigations the complainant’s maternal and step father’s families with the hope that something tangible will be found”.

Outlining the company’s investigations in a document titled ‘Maphohloane Report,’ the LEC stated that: “In December 1994, a storm or strong winds damaged LEC power lines which led to fatal electrocution of Mrs Ratšoane née Ms Nkhathatseng”.

“Enquiries have been made as to whether an ex-gratia payment or not and that no person either at LEC or Ratšoane family have clearly showed no interest in the issue. This suggested that some mutual understanding was reached between the deceased’s family and LEC.”

The LEC cites the strong attendance of its staff members at the funeral as an indication that a form of mutual understanding between the company and the deceased’s family was reached.

The report however, refutes Rethabile’s claims saying no negligence could be attributable to the LEC.

The company says from its legal stand point, “no legal claim can arise as what happened to the deceased was a clear indication of force majeure (an act of God)”.

It therefore argues “further that any claim would be nothing but an enrichment attempt which LEC can unfortunately not entertain”.

The Maphohloane report has highlighted the following findings:

  • It was obvious Ms Mafura was electrocuted.
  • Two LEC staff members also advised that they clearly remembered there was once such a case but knew nothing further. These are Mr Kaile who was working in Mohale’s Hoek and Mr Molise who is still working in Mohale’s Hoek.
  • No claim seems to have been made as nothing could be traced regarding this case and consequently no compensation seems to have been made.
  • The cause of death was live line which was destroyed by strong winds and this does not seem to have been due to negligence on the part of LEC.
  • Nobody seems to care whether compensation was made or can be made. This was obvious at the meeting where Ratšoane family unanimously agreed that Ms Rethabile Mafura should pursue the matter and that LEC should continue to communicate everything related to this case to her.
  • It was expected that the Ratšoane family will be the one demanding compensation but this is not the case. Not a single member of this family attended the meeting. Legally this is not right.”
  • The Ombudsman responded to the LEC’s communication where they advanced reasons for denying liability as belated submission and stated that the LEC’s findings (on the electrocution) were not satisfactory.

During the inquiry, the Ombudsman had advised LEC to peruse their files and check whether any claim had ever been made. On 17 February 2011, the LEC reported to Ombudsman that there was no trace of any claim made.

In one of the meetings between the LEC and the Ombudsman on 17 October 2011, the company offered a once-off payment of M10 000 to Ms Ratšoane’s children.

The company claimed that it was not liable for the electrocution of Ms Mafura but “being a decent corporate organisation” it could only pay M10 000 in compensation to Rethabile and her brother Khosi.

In 2011 Rethabile was attending school outside the country when she communicated with the Ombudsman through an email.

In this email and throughout the investigations, she has been consistent that she and Khosi have been painfully affected by the ordeal of their mother. The situation was aggravated by the fact that after their mother’s death, their grandmother did not have any means of providing for them and therefore they suffered.

At some point the Ombudsman resolved to seek parliament’s intervention to end the standoff.

In the “Special Report to Parliament by the Ombudsman” tabled in the National Assembly on 31 August 2018, the Ombudsman clearly stated that the electricity pole bearing live electricity that killed Ms Mafura belonged to the LEC.

The Ombudsman therefore settled that the power pole bearing live electricity belonged to LEC “notwithstanding that nature brought it down.”

In the report, the Ombudsman concluded that the deceased’s children suffered loss “caused by the wrongful act of the LEC in 1994”.

He further stated that because both children depended on their mother for support and maintenance, “whoever caused her death is liable to compensate them for that loss throughout their minority status”.

The report indicates that unlike Rethabile who went as far as tertiary education by doing some domestic work to pay for her fees until she got sponsorship, her brother Khosi had to drop out at Form B due to financial constraints.

The Ombudsman therefore recommended in 2014 that LEC should compensate the siblings to the total sum of M392 000 in respect of the loss of upbringing and care is based on average household expenditure.

Since 22 April 2014 when the Ombudsman gave LEC ultimatum to have compensated Rethabile and within seven months, the LEC has remained silent until the matter was tabled before the National Assembly on 31 August 2018 for intervention.

“It would seem it was an undisputed fact that the company did nothing about the pole to eliminate the source of danger, therefore they cannot deny liability.

“What I saw from Rethabile’s letter of complaint and LEC records availed to my office is that the pole lay for more than two days after the storm ‘when God made it fall,” the Ombudsman states.

According to ‘Maphohloane report, community members mentioned that the same LEC pole had on the previous night injured another person before it caused Ms Ratsoane’s death.

The report specified that LEC made no reaction to Rethabile’s complaints until 22 June 2012 when an investigator from the Ombudsman office was told by the LEC to advise Rethabile and her brother Khosi to make a claim so that LEC could reconsider the ex-gratia (M10 000) it had offered before.

The report further notes that there was no movement on the issue until 2 May 2013 when the former LEC managing director Mbele Hoohlo personally delivered the letter to the office of the Ombudsman indicating an increase of M10 000 to make the ex-gratia compensation offer M20 000.

Mr Hoohlo claimed that LEC offered M20 000 as compensation to both the deceased’s children because the LEC did not have the financial muscle to make any further adjustments and that the company was only compensating out of compassion.

“I feel that M20 000 is mockery considering me and my brother’s loss,” Rethabile said in the report when responding to the revised LEC offer which she refused to accept.

According to the Ombudsman, there is absolutely no reason for the LEC to hide behind the Mafura and Ratšoane families’ lack of interest in demanding compensation.

He went on to explain that he does not see where the interests of Mafura and Ratšoane have to do with the interests of the deceased’s children.

“If it is a legal interest to demand compensation, a failure by any of the said families to do so, does not bar Rethabile, the complainant in this matter to demand compensation.”

Meanwhile a Lesotho Electricity and Water Authority (LEWA) representative, Shoao Khatala, told the MNNCIJ that the Lesotho Electricity Authority Act of 2002 doesn’t cover issues of compensation.

“We don’t have powers to measure damage. The LEC has an internal compensation policy and it would be in a better position to discuss the processes taken for the company to compensate in cases of negligence,” Mr Khatala said.

 

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