Man sentenced for death of three roadworkers

David Cox appears in the Whakatane District Court charged with causing the deaths of three roadworkers in February 2019 near Pikowai NZME photograph by Katee Shanks 26 March 2019

A 200mm miscalculation caused the deaths of three roadworkers on the Matata Straights earlier this year.

Tauranga man, David Michael Cox, 47, appeared in the Whakatane District Court for sentence on three counts of careless driving causing death.

The charges relate to the deaths of David Reginald Te Wira Epairama, Haki Graham Hiha and Dudley Soul Raroa, three Higgins workers killed while cleaning a culvert on the side of the Matata Straights on February 26.

The three men died when they were crushed by a truck in four-vehicle pileup caused by Cox.

Judge Peter Rollo sentenced Cox to 250 hours community work, disqualified him from driving for 21 months and ordered him to pay $21,000 emotional harm reparation to the victims’ families within 28 days.

The sentence drew cries of anger from family members, who held photos of the deceased men and had cried throughout the submissions.

One woman angrily asked why Cox was not sentenced to jail time while a man asked if that was all the men’s lives were worth.

Cox was driving a truck east on State Highway 2 at 1.50pm outside Matata when the left front side of his trailer clipped the right rear end of a Higgins contracting truck parked on the side of the road.

This flung the Higgins truck forward and sideways into the culvert where the three men were working. This impact caused their deaths.

The impact also flung Cox’s truck forward and into a tanker also parked on the side of the road. His truck then overturned and also landed in the culvert.

The court heard if Cox had been just 200mm to the right it was likely the crash would never have occurred.

Police prosecutor Bill Scott said there were two aggravating features in Cox’s offending, one being that he had clear visibility, about 450 metres ahead of him, prior to the point of impact.

“He was seated in an elevated position and had a clear line of sight to the Higgins vehicle,” said Mr Scott.

“The Higgins vehicle was there to be seen, it had its hazard lights on, flashing orange lights on the roof and a flashing arrow directing traffic around the truck.”

Mr Scott said the second aggravating factor was that Mr Cox was a professional driver who caused the deaths of three men. He said there were no mitigating factors in the offending.

Police advocated for Cox to receive a sentence of community detention, a two-year disqualification and for Cox to pay emotional harm reparation.

“It is at the lower end of offending, but the consequences are extreme,” said Mr Scott.

“The vehicle was there to be seen and it was a bright, sunny day, the defendant should have seen the Higgins vehicle. That he did not, the outcome is nothing short of tragic.”

Defence lawyer Tony Balme said his client committed an error of judgment with terrible consequences that he would have to live with until the “end of his days”.

“The lane of travel was sufficient for him to pass had he exercised due care,” said Mr Balme.

“He struggles to explain or articulate how that error of judgement occurred and he can’t pick out what he did wrong. But, at the end of the day he accepts that he was at fault and is extremely remorseful.”

Cox has been struggling with ongoing physical and mental issues since the crash occurred.

Mr Balme said his client has been unable to work since due to having bulging vertebrae which would require surgery. He was now struggling to support his young family on ACC payments.

Cox also bore the mental scars of that day and had been struggling with depression and waking throughout the night with recurring nightmares.

“It has been a bleak and difficult time for the defendant,” said Mr Balme.

He submitted that his client should be given a hefty sentence of community work, be disqualified from driving for 12 to 18 months and should pay emotional harm reparation.

“His financial outlook is not good, he has two young children to support and is on ACC,” said Mr Balme.

“His only asset is the family car which he estimates he can sell for between $6,000 to $7,000. His family has also made contributions which will total $21,000, $7,000 to each family who lost a family member.

“This can be made available within a month, it isn’t much, but it is all the family can realistically raise.”

Mr Balme said this had been a terrible, traumatic time for all involved, but Cox had been consistent in showing deep concern for the harm he had caused.

Judge Rollo said the consequences of Cox’s offending were obvious.

“The carelessness of the driver of a large and unforgiving truck caused the deaths of three loved men who were toiling to provide for their families,” said Judge Rollo.

“It is clear from reading the victim impact statements that these were men of mana, aroha and manaakitanga, they were clearly much loved.”

“The families had loved ones snatched from life and, in one case, from a niece born that morning, who had yet to be held and marvelled at.

“This was a terrible accident, but it was not deliberate. It was an inexplicable lapse in concentration that we all experience at some stage. It might be the near miss of a cyclist or pedestrian when we nearly don’t see them, or it might be a scrape on the side of the garage we have parked in many times before. This is the human condition.”

Mr Rollo said when sentencing Cox that the law accesses the carelessness of the action, not the consequences.

“In this case there was a small degree of carelessness with a huge consequence but regrettably we can’t turn back the clock.”

Mr Rollo said it was to Cox’s credit that he had attended two restorative justice sessions with the men’s extended family which must have been “difficult and demanding in the face of such grief”.

“You have cobbled together an offer which undoubtably stretches yours and your family’s finances. There can never be adequate restitution in a case such as this, and we must accept that this is the height of your ability.”