A tearful father “haunted” by a tragic river crossing that claimed the life of his two-year-old daughter and another man yesterday avoided a conviction.
Michael Saunders was charged with dangerous driving causing the deaths of his daughter Emily and 66-year-old Barry Petrie who drowned when crossing the Poerua River near Hari Hari in an Isuzu Bighorn in June last year.
Saunders was driving the 4WD, and had crossed the swollen river three times already that day with four others in the vehicle including his wife, and Emily’s mother Sandra Saunders, when the tragic accident happened.
Crossing the river was something that Saunders, a sharemilker, did every other day in his job, Christchurch District Court heard.
He had crossed it already three times that morning.
But as he crossed the river to pick up Petrie, and another worker, Saunders was conscious that the water in the river was “flowing a little bit faster,” the court heard.
“It was at that point when things went seriously wrong,” Judge Jane Farish said.
They found themselves in the middle of the river, when the vehicle lost traction and started floating downstream.
Saunders realised that everybody needed to evacuate.
While one worker helped Saunders’ wife, Petrie grabbed young Emily.
Saunders then took hold of Emily but in the strong current, lost his grip on her and she was swept away.
Petrie swam after her.
His body was found the following day, but Emily’s was never recovered.
Saunders and his wife remains “haunted” by the tragedy, said Judge Farish who granted him a discharge without conviction. He wept in the dock during the sentencing.
Although what Saunders was doing was “inherently dangerous”, he would never have done so if he thought lives were at risk, “let
alone your own family”, the judge said.
By repeating such dangerous tasks, it could have lulled him into a “false sense of competence”, she said.
Judge Farish found his culpability to be in the “extremely low end”.
She found that there would have been a “real and appreciable risk” that he would have lost his job, now in Mid Canterbury, if he was convicted in what was “unique circumstances”.
“This was not your run of the mill dangerous driving causing death.”
Judge Farish ordered Saunders to make an emotional harm payment to Petrie’s widow of $5000 and to participate in a restorative justice conference with her if and when she was ready.
The judge also encouraged police to review their policy over contact with victims and offenders and to take into account individual circumstances.
Saunders did not comment as he left court.
New Zealand Herald