11 Aug 2017

No conviction for father after toddler's river death

5:11 pm on 11 August 2017

A West Coast man who accidentally caused the death of his two-year-old daughter after their vehicle got stuck in a river has been discharged without conviction.

Poerua River

The Poerua River, which claimed the lives of two-year-old Emily Saunders and 66-year-old Barry Petrie. Photo: 123rf.com

Michael Saunders pleaded guilty this year to two charges of dangerous driving causing death, after his four-wheel-drive got stuck crossing the Poerua River in June last year.

His daughter Emily Saunders, 2, drowned along with Barry Petrie, 66, when they were swept away in the swollen river.

Emily's body was never found.

Crossing the river was a regular job for Mr Saunders, who was at the time a sharemilker, and he had already crossed the river three times that morning.

Mr Saunders observed that the Poerua river was swollen and rising, so when he had to cross again, he went upstream to what he thought was a safe location.

However, tragedy struck as Mr Saunders attempted to cross the river for a fourth time, as his vehicle lost traction and began floating downstream.

Emily's mother, Sandra Saunders, was also in the vehicle, but managed to escape, while Mr Saunders attempted to grab Emily.

However, Emily was swept out of Mr Saunders' arms in the strong current.

Mr Petrie also drowned, with his body found the next day.

Judge Jane Farish told the Christchurch District Court Mr Saunders, now working as a machine operator in Ashburton, was "haunted" by the tragedy, and discharged him without conviction.

"There is nothing the court can do to make you more accountable," Judge Farish told Mr Saunders, who wept in the dock.

"There were real and tragic consequences for you and the Petrie family that day."

Judge Farish said there was no chance the tragedy would happen again, and she encouraged Mr Saunders to meet Mr Petrie's family for restorative justice.

She also ordered Mr Saunders to pay an emotional harm payment of $5000 to Mr Petrie's wife.