Heart surgeon ordered to pay $165k to deadly crash victims' families

Kenneth Michael Wolnak has admitted careless driving causing death and injury.

Kenneth Michael Wolnak has admitted careless driving causing death and injury.

A United States heart surgeon who has dedicated his career to saving lives is having to come to terms with the reality that he caused the deaths of two men in a horrific car crash near Nelson.

Dr Kenneth Wolnak was on holiday in New Zealand with his wife Elizabeth when he attempted a U-turn on the busy Coastal Highway, between Nelson and Motueka, causing the three-car crash on the morning of February 27.

Wolnak was sentenced in the Nelson District Court on Monday and ordered to pay the crash victims' families a total of $165,000 for the emotional harm he has caused them.

The scene of the double fatal crash on the Coastal Highway.

The scene of the double fatal crash on the Coastal Highway.

Judge Richard Russell said it was one of the largest orders of its kind.

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He pleaded guilty last month to two charges of careless use of a motor vehicle causing death and four charges of careless use causing injury.

Steve Jayes, left, was the driver of the Isuzu truck and died at the scene of the crash. Jayes is pictured with his sons ...

Steve Jayes, left, was the driver of the Isuzu truck and died at the scene of the crash. Jayes is pictured with his sons Cassius and Lennox, and his partner Monique Hardiman.

Judge Russell said the crash was a direct result of Wolnak's carelessness.

"The consequences of your carelessness here couldn't be greater.

"This accident is something you're going to have to live with for the rest of your life."

Nelson father-of-two Steve Jayes, 41, and recently retired Christchurch man Kevin Whitburn, 69, died at the scene.

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Four others, including Whitburn's wife Janet and Wolank's wife, were seriously injured.


Jayes' partner Monique Hardiman wrote in her victim impact statement that the prospect of living without him and her sons not having a father has caused her "overwhelming sadness and apprehension".

She said that Jayes was fully-involved in the boys' lives.

"His sole focus was to watch them grow into respectful, caring and kind men," Judge Russell said.

"She said their lives will be forever impacted by your error of judgement."

In her statement, read by Judge Russell, Janet Whitburn said that she and her husband had just retired and were looking forward to travelling through New Zealand in their caravan.

"She is shattered and she wonders how she's going to get through.

"She's nervous travelling in a vehicle and said many of her plans and dreams ended on the day of the accident."

Wolnak, an experienced cardiothorasic surgeon, took part in three restorative justice meetings with the families and Judge Russell said it appeared they held no animosity towards him.

"There is an element of forgiveness from them towards you."


Defence lawyer Tony Bamford said Wolnak had deposited a six-figure sum into a trust account ready to be paid to the victims' families.

"Dr Wolnak has been anxious not to come to court and give the impression he's buying his way out of the process," Bamford said.

"He's gone to quite significant lengths on a personal level to ... acknowledge and tender his apologies.

"They count for what they are, but they can't bring a dead person back."

Judge Russell said Wolnak's initial offer was "a bit light" and he was looking at adding $20,000 more to be directed to Jayes' young sons, aged 7 and 5.

He said determining emotional harm payments was an extremely difficult task as "you can't put a price on a life". 

Judge Russell ordered Wolnak to pay $80,000 to Jayes' surviving partner and two children; $50,000 to Janet Whitburn; $25,000 to one of the men injured in the crash; and $10,000 to the other injured man.


Bamford said that Wolnak has had to reconcile his career dedicated to saving lives with the fact that he's taken the lives to two people.

He said that Wolnak and his wife have had ongoing medical treatment in the Nelson region and wanted to contribute back to the community.

Wolnak has proposed setting up a fund for an exchange programme for trainee surgeons in New Zealand at a teaching hospital in his home state of Wisconsin. 

"He's gone well and truly beyond what would normally be expected of someone."

Judge Russell said he was convinced that Wolnak was deeply remorseful and took responsibility for his error or judgement.

He advised Wolnak to get on with his life as best he can.

"I want you to return to work as a surgeon. I want you to improve the quality of as many lives as you can."

Speaking on RNZ's Checkpoint programme prior to sentencing on Monday, Wolnak told John Campbell that while he carried a large burden as a result of his actions, the response from New Zealanders who had spoken to him had largely been one of kindness. 

"There's absolutely no propensity to blame me from any of your countrymen...[but] it's impossible not to – yes, I hold myself responsible for causing this mayhem."

Meeting the victims' families through the restorative justice meetings had gone some way to bringing "peace and closure" to all those affected by the crash.

"I was forewarned that it would be a potentially brutal process – I haven't found it to be brutal at all," he said.

"They have just been a process through which I can only hope some peace is brought to these poor grieving folks and a process through which I can make some restoration, impossible as that is."

Wolnak also spoke of his own sadness he felt in the days since the accident.

"There was a period of time right after the accident...I certainly felt like I was going to spend a good long time finding a rock to crawl under and not wanting peek out too much - I think some of that was the concussion but some of it was undoubtedly the rawness of how it felt to have that awesome guilt."

"To some extent I almost feel guilty talking about myself - my wife was injured, I was injured, but our lives will go on." 

"I can only imagine how acutely their loss is felt and I hope there is some way I can do right by them."


The tragic series of events started with a wrong turn.

Wolnak and his wife were planning to visit Kaiteriteri and Abel Tasman National Park that morning.

Wolnak turned left from Westdale Rd, where he had been staying, onto State Highway 60.

He drove about two kilometres in the Toyota SUV before he realised he was going the wrong way.

He pulled over about 300 metres south of Maisey Rd and attempted to perform a U-turn on the highway.

It was that moment of inattention that caused the deadly crash.

Jayes was the driver of a northbound Isuzu truck carrying about 6.5 tonnes of scaffolding. 

On that Monday morning, he rounded a slight bend in the road to find Wolank's vehicle in his path, about 50m ahead of him.

He tried to swerve, but crashed into the passenger side of Wolank's vehicle.

The truck crossed the centreline into the path of southbound traffic.

Whitburn and his wife Janet, of Christchurch were heading south in their Toyota Prado, towing a caravan, after holidaying in nearby Mapua.

They were travelling at about 80-90kmh when they crashed into the Isuzu truck, causing it to spin and spill the scaffolding across the road.

The caravan was "decimated" with parts strewn across the road.

The three occupants of the Isuzu truck, including Jayes, were trapped in the cab for about 40 minutes.

 - Stuff

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