25 Apr 2017

US doctor who caused fatal crash plans surgeon training fund

10:17 am on 25 April 2017

The American surgeon who caused a fatal crash near Nelson in February plans to set up a fund to support a surgeon exchange training programme between New Zealand and the United States.

American heart surgeon Kenneth Wolnak, whose careless driving resulted in the death of two men near Nelson in February, has been ordered to pay $165,000 in reparation.

American heart surgeon Kenneth Wolnak, whose careless driving resulted in the death of two men near Nelson in February, has been ordered to pay $165,000 in reparation. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Kenneth Wolnak, 63, was yesterday ordered in the Nelson District Court to pay $165,000 in emotional harm reparation to the families of the victims and survivors.

Mr Wolnak had earlier admitted charges of careless driving causing a double fatality, and a further four charges of causing injury, after he did a U-turn on a highway that caused a three-vehicle crash.

The heart surgeon and his wife were holidaying in Mapua and had just left on a day excursion for Kaiteriteri and the Abel Tasman National Park when he realised they were headed in the wrong direction.

Wolnak's U-turn caused a three-vehicle crash in which 41-year-old Stephen Jayes and 69-year-old Kevin Whitburn died.

The injured also included Wolnak's wife Elizabeth, who has only recently been discharged from Wellington Hospital.

She was in court yesterday to support her husband, still bearing signs of what were described by Judge Richard Russell as multiple serious injuries.

Judge Russell said in sentencing it was unclear how Wolnak had failed to see the large, brightly coloured truck coming towards his vehicle.

He could only assume Wolnak looked behind him and failed to look ahead before turning.

At least five people have been injured in a crash between Richmond and Mapua on the Coastal Highway in Tasman District

The scene of the fatal crash in February near Mapua. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

During yesterday's sentencing, Wolnak's lawyer, Tony Bamford, said that his client's offer of a substantial amount of money to the families of the victims and the survivors should not be seen as him avoiding responsibility.

"Dr Wolnak has been anxious not to come to court and give the impression that he's buying his way out of the process - that's not what this process is about for him.

"He's gone to quite significant lengths on a personal level to meet, acknowledge and tender his apologies," Mr Bamford said.

He said the idea of an exchange programme was prompted by the support Wolnak and his wife got from New Zealand medical authorities.

Mr Bamford said Wolnak accepted that financial help would never reverse what happened, but hoped the programme would go some way towards helping others.

"He is setting up a fund which will be administered by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, to have an exchange programme for a trainee surgeon from Otago University and that will be in exchange with a teaching hospital in his area of the US."

Mr Bamford said the idea had received early support from Wolnak's associates, colleagues and friends.

During Wolnak's earlier court appearance, Mr Bamford said that it was a "tragic set of circumstances" for all concerned, particularly the families of the victims.

"I know that Mr Wolnak's position is that he feels horrified that he's caused such carnage.

"He spends most of his time saving lives and he's now having to come to terms with having caused this horrible accident."

The court ordered him to pay $80,000 to Mr Jayes' partner and the couple's two young sons, and $50,000 for causing injury to Janet Whitburn, Mr Whitburn's wife.

Mrs Whitburn told RNZ's Checkpoint it was an accident and she was glad Wolnak was not going to jail - and that she had forgiven him for the crash that killed her husband.

The other $35,000 would go to the two other injured passengers in the truck Mr Jayes was in.

The Wolnaks plan to leave New Zealand this week.