What Connect Logistics tragedy tells us about CoR laws

A few months ago, transport company Connect Logistics was fined a colossal $2.31 million for a serious breach of the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL).

Its managing director, Corey Matthews, was fined $22,000. Its national operations manager, Cris Large, was sentenced to three years in prison. He’ll be eligible for release in January 2025.

It’s one of the most serious breaches of Chain of Responsibility (CoR) legislation we’ve seen in while.

And it’s also one of the most serious penalties ever imposed on both a business and an individual for breaches of the national law.

Many of us in the industry have been critical of the Heavy Vehicle National Regulator (HVNR) and Chain of Responsibility (CoR) laws generally (myself included).

Do these new penalties change the game?

What happened again?

The National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) laid charges against Connect Logistics in September 2021 after an in-depth investigation conducted by Victoria Police’s Taskforce Paragon.

Taskforce Paragon was put together to investigate a tragic event on the Eastern Freeway in Melbourne on April 22, 2020, when a heavy vehicle tragically struck and claimed the lives of four Victoria Police officers who were engaged in a roadside intercept.

It marked the first time a local court has imposed a fine of such magnitude.

This substantial penalty really underscores the gravity of the breach and serves as a noteworthy precedent within the legal and transport landscape.

Some legalities – what the court decision found

Connect Logistics and some of its top staff were charged with Category 1 and 2 offences under the CoR provisions of the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL).

As we all know, CoR imposes a ‘chain’ of legal responsibility – meaning that executives at the top can be found responsible for the tragedies we see on our roads.

Category 1 offences are the most serious offences in the HVNL. They carry a maximum penalty of $300,000 and/or five years imprisonment for an individual and $3,000,000 for a corporation.

While Category 2 offences carry a maximum penalty of $150,000 for an individual and $1,500,000 for a corporation.

Mr Large, Mr Matthews and the company were found guilty of offences – fines, imprisonment and conditions were imposed.

Mr Large was banned from working in the transport industry 12 months following his release.

These are pretty impressive penalties.

Does it mean CoR really is an effective law?

Well, kind of.

The laws are effective at punishing the worst offenders

The Connect Logistics case highlights that the HVNL and its provisions have the potential to impose serious penalties for the worst offenders.

Obviously, these types of tragedies at this colossal scale do not happen every single day.

But when they do happen, it is a relief to know that there are laws to punish not only the company but the top executives as well.

The whole point of chain of responsibility is to “pierce the corporate veil” and punish individual human beings who have played a role in breaking the law.

Not just truck drivers, but actual bosses.

Without such a law, these directors would probably have been protected by the corporate shield that was created, and would get away “scot free”.

We’ve seen these types of successful prosecution stories before.

For example, in late 2022, De Paoli Transport was fined $180,000 for speed and fatigue offences and the sole director and scheduler were fined $210,000 in total.

That company was found to have committed a litany of breaches from failing to maintain adequate systems to failing to provide training regarding driver fatigue.

However, despite these success stories…

The laws can’t prevent tragedy from striking

The evidence established that Connect Logistics had been breaching CoR laws for ages – and it took the death of four police officers for this to finally come to light.

Taskforce Paragon was an 18-month police investigation, and it revealed some shocking evidence.

Over 40 per cent of this company’s shifts had one or more fatigue-related breaches.

Over 800 shifts had fatigue breaches, 500 of which had been checked and endorsed by a supervisor.

Falsified timesheets. Critical non-conformance reports left unreported to the NHVR.

It goes on.

How could Connect Logistics get away with all this for so long?

It’s because the HVNL is largely reactive, rather than proactive.

The law is reactive rather than proactive (despite its intention)

The creation of the “primary duty” in the HVNL was expected to shift the law from being reactive to proactive.

The law requires parties in the supply chain to take a proactive approach to risk management, as they are required to exercise “due diligence” when complying with their Safety Duty legal obligations.

However, the HVNL struggles when it comes to actually policing compliance with the duty – until something really bad happens.

To my knowledge…

The NHVR cannot just show up to a transport company’s yard unannounced and conduct an inspection.

The NHVR cannot enforce the way that a company instils a safety culture within its workforce.

The NHVR cannot have heavy vehicle inspection stations everywhere.

A lot of the work, in fact, is still done by NSW Police, by state-based road authorities and by state-based work health and safety authorities.

The laws have the potential to be revolutionary

I may be sounding overly pessimistic. So let me change that tone.

At the end of the day, the HVNL has the potential to be a revolutionary piece of proactive legislation.

The proactive Safety Duty is an incredibly important element of our transportation system. The fact that the corporate veil can actually be pierced and hold directors to account is essential to ensuring a safe supply chain.

The fact even consignees can be held to account, even if they don’t own any of the trucks delivering to them, is nothing short of incredible.

If properly executed, these laws have the capacity to completely change the industry forever by ensuring every transport company instills a safety culture across every corner of its business.

But these goals will not be achieved because they exist in a piece of legislation.

From a heavy vehicle law to a safety law

I would like the HVNL to transform into more like the state-base work health and safety acts that were born a decade ago.

I’m talking about:

  • Stronger enforcement and inspection powers given to the NHVR (for example, the power to conduct unannounced yard inspections).
  • The ability to elect or appoint “Heavy Vehicle Representatives” which have the power to issue provisional notices against companies for failing to comply with CoR (thereby triggering an NHVR investigation).
  • The requirement for transport companies and consignees to demonstrate to the NHVR how it is complying with the national law every quarter.
  • Giving drivers, schedulers and other workers the right to cease work and refuse directions that they reasonably believe are not compliant with the CoR, with an automatic prohibition on dismissals and retaliatory action for exercising those rights.

Every single day, our industry engages in some of the most dangerous work across the entire country.

It’s time to make it incredibly difficult for businesses to get away with conducting dodgy practices that ultimately results in human death.

If we don’t do something, there will certainly be more tragedies like the Connect Logistics saga.

You can count on it.

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