Woman on Life Support Dies After Power Company Cuts Electricity

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

WELLINGTON, New Zealand —  A New Zealand mother who needed an electric oxygen pump to breathe died after an energy company cut the power to her home due to an unpaid bill, her family claimed Wednesday.

Police said they launched an investigation into the death of Folole Muliaga, 44, on Tuesday, in the northern city of Auckland, which happened within two hours of state-owned company Mercury Energy cutting power to her house.

Mercury Energy’s general manager, James Moulder, said the company was devastated by the woman’s death and was conducting its own investigation to determine what happened.

He refused to say how much money Muliaga had owed the company.

Muliaga, a schoolteacher with four children ages 5 to 20, had been off work since February with an illness when a Mercury Energy representative arrived on Tuesday to disconnect the electricity, said Sheehan, a nephew-in-law of Muliaga’s.

Sheehan said both Muliaga and her son told the technician she was dependent on the oxygen machine to stay alive and invited him into the house to see it, so he knew the situation.

“Then he cut the power off,” he told The Associated Press.

Almost immediately, Muliaga began having difficulty breathing, became faint and then collapsed, he said. Paramedics were unable to revive her, and she was pronounced dead within two hours of the power being cut.

Inspector Bruce Bird said police would investigate the death.

Moulder said the company restored electricity to the house on Wednesday after learning of the woman’s death, and that the grieving family had spent a night without power.

Moulder expressed his “deep condolences” to the family, and said the company was checking reports that it had been warned Muliaga needed power for the oxygen machine.

Sheehan said the family’s bills would prove Muliaga was trying to pay the account, and received no warning the power would be shut off. He declined to say how much she owed.

State Owned Enterprises Minister Trevor Mallard said there were also reports the family had been warned about the overdue account, something Sheehan disputed.

“The correct authority to investigate this and sort out the facts is the police,” Mallard said, adding the government would expect “full accountability” if the company was found to be culpable.

Auckland University professor of law Bill Hodge said manslaughter charges could potentially could be filed, depending on what information Mercury Energy had and how it was expressed to them.

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