Matata triple fatal driver sentenced to community work

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Tragic, devastating and immensely sad.

This is how Judge Peter Rollo has described the triple fatal crash which claimed the lives of three Rotorua Higgins road workers on State Highway 2 near Matata in February.

The comments were made during the sentencing of 47-year-old David Michael Cox in Whakatane District Court today.

Earlier this year Cox pleaded guilty on three counts of careless driving causing death or injury of Dudley Sole Raroa, 55 David Reginald Te Wira Eparaima, also 55, and Haki Graham Hiha, 40.

In his opening remarks Judge Rollo acknowledged the friends and whanau of the deceased.

He said the sentencing marked a tragic day, resolving a tragic event.

"We are here today due to the sad loss of three men. On behalf of the Court, I extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of these victims."

Rollo ordered a starting point of community detention, driving disqualification and reparation for emotional damages caused.

Police Prosecutor Bill Scott suggested two years disqualification and reparation would be appropriate.

He said the accused had accepted the summary of facts.

The summary stated there was about 450 meters visibility on the day of the crash, and the defendant was also seated in an elevated vehicle.

The Higgins vehicle had lights flashing at the top of the cab, along with a large white sign which also had flashing lights and an arrow pointing to the left.

Scott said while the Higgins vehicle was parked on the left hand side of the road and on the fog line, the vehicle was there to be seen.

He says there were a number of flashing lights drawing attention to it, conditions were good and there was clear visibility.

A significant number of vehicles had also already passed the Higgins truck safely - as proven by dash cam footage from a truck that had passed minutes earlier, Scott said.

"It's not a case where someone was walking around in the dark on the side of the road."

Mr Scott noted the defendant is a professional driver and had been for some time. He says he should've been capable of avoiding an accident.

He only had three other traffic infringements for speed but they weren't relevant to the case, Scott said.

Counsel to the defendant, Tony Balme, expressed Mr Cox's deepest sympathy to the victims' families.

"It is something he will have to live with until the end of his days," he said.

"He was carrying furniture from Tauranga to Kawerau. It was a routine trip on a fine day.

"He's accepted the truck was 'there to be seen' and that his line of vision was 'sufficient'.

"In a restoration conference he explained to one family member of the deceased that he couldn't point to anything specific in his actions that could've led to what happened that day."

During the conference, Mr Cox accepted fault for the crash.

"At the end of the day I'm at fault. I'm a professional driver, I should've been capable, this shouldn't have happened," Mr Cox told the family member.

Mr Balme also told the court of the physical injuries the accused had suffered as a result of the crash.

"He has lost employment due to medical incapability and is receiving ACC."

Balme said Cox's mental health was suffering too, he said Cox has depression and since the crash has had recurring nightmares. His wife has also attested that he is not coping well.

"It is a difficult situation for him.He went through two restorative justice conferences which were emotionally difficult, but he has benefited from this process.

"The restorative justice is part of his long-term healing process."

Mr Balme said the defendant had accepted he will face a significant sentence and put a proposal forward on behalf of Cox, for restorative justice payments.

He said while Cox's financial situation is not good, he's offered to pay $21,000, with $7000 going to each of the families of the three men killed.

The court heard Mr Cox has two young children and he is getting ACC payments while his wife works.

"They are able to sell the family car for between $6000 and $7000.

"His father in law has also proposed family contributions. The excess of around $14,000 will come from the support of family. It is as much as the family can realistically raise.

"When he will be working again is unknown, he needs to be physically and mentally ready."

Mr Balme said Cox had acknowledged it has been a terrible traumatic time for the victims' families but that he wanted to put into context how he had been affected.

"He is intensely remorseful. The defendant has been consistent showing his culpability for harm caused from the beginning."

Judge Rollo addressing Mr Cox then told him his carelessness in driving a large unforgiving truck had caused the death of three loved men.

"By all accounts from the victim impact statements I have read, I am aware of the aroha and manaakitanga felt towards these men. They were loved by their whole whanau."

Judge Rollo told the court he's spent a significant amount of time trying to understand the exact dimensions of the scene in fairness to the victims' families and the defendant.

"The Higgins truck was parked on the left hand side of the fog line.

"There was 450m visibility, he was in an elevated seat, had no drug/alcohol impairments, no physical or psychological impairments and should've been able to avoid what happened.

"The left hand side of Mr Cox's truck clipped the rear right of the parked Higgins truck. There was an error of judgement by about 200mm.

"This caused the truck to flood forwards and sideways, rolling into the ditch. The three men were crushed by vehicle

"They had done all they needed to to ensure they were at a safe distance from harms way."

His truck then flung 25 metres hitting a tanker. Mr Cox suffered injury from this.

"The consequences for these three men are obvious. This accident has affected everyone from the victim's friends and families, employers, and the entire community.

"It's tragic, devastating and immensely sad.

"The niece of one of the victims had just been born that morning, but such is life and death. Sometimes it is unexpected, uncaring and unwanted.

"This is the result of a human momentarily failure - an inexplicable lapse in judgement as we all experience from time to time. But we won't all have this result.

"It's like the near miss you've had hundreds of times before - you don't expect it to end like this. Unfortunately in this case it did.

"You fell well below standard of reasonable and prudent driver."

Judge Rollo said the maximum penalty of the charge is three months imprisonment, $4500 dollars in emotional harm damages, and a minimum of six months disqualification from driving.

He credited Cox's acceptance of fault from a very early stage.

"I also credit restorative justice action you have taken, which you say was 'difficult and demanding'.

"You have brought together an offer that will stretch your finances.

"Nothing will ever be adequate to substitute for the lives lost but this offer is to your ability and a worthy offer.

"You were a professional driver, your standard of driving should've been higher.

"You have told of the physically and emotional damages you have suffered - I imagine these will be similar to what the families of the victims are going through.

"The Higgins vehicle was there to be seen, and you failed to take appropriate care."

He sentenced Mr Cox to 250 hours community service, 21 months disqualification from driving and $21,000 in emotional harm payments as proposed.

Visibly distraught family members of the deceased packed out the court room to hear the verdict, along with those in support of Mr Cox.

One woman called the sentence unfair, yelling to the Judge that carelessness is worse than recklessness.

"These men died, is there going to be any jail time for him [Cox]?" she asked the judge. "It's not bloody fair."

Mr Cox will have 28 days to pay the victims' families.

Sam Gardner