A Wisconsin heart surgeon who was vacationing in New Zealand when he caused a highway accident that killed two people and injured four others was ordered Monday to make reparation payments but avoided jail time.
A district court judge ordered Kenneth Wolnak to pay a total of 165,000 New Zealand dollars ($116,000) to the victims or their families.
Last month, the 63-year-old pleaded guilty to six charges of careless driving after attempting a U-turn on a coastal highway near the town of Nelson. Several vehicles were involved in the ensuing accident.
According to a police summary of facts, Wolnak and his wife, Elizabeth, arrived in New Zealand in mid-February. They rented an SUV and traveled extensively around the South Island before the Feb. 27 accident.
Wolnak’s lawyer Tony Bamford said his client suffered a concussion and has no memory of the accident.
According to Bamford, the son of one of the victims who died read a statement in court that said: “I hope you are able to continue saving lives and making a real difference in the world. That’s what Dad would have wanted, too.”
As part of a legal process in New Zealand known as restorative justice, Wolnak met with some of the victims and their families. He also agreed at the request of a woman whose husband died in the accident to participate in an interview with Radio New Zealand.
Wolnak said in the interview that while in New Zealand, he had to concentrate on driving on the left-hand side of the road.
“It wasn’t the most relaxed excursions on the roads, because I was constantly thinking, ‘What am I going to do wrong?”‘ he said.
Wolnak said he held himself responsible for causing “mayhem” after making the “ill-advised” U-turn.
He said that after the accident, he felt he wanted to find a rock to crawl under, and to not peek out too much.
“As unimaginable as their grief may be, I find it difficult to put into words how sorry I am about that,” he said.
Wolnak has worked for the past 15 years at Mercyhealth in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Last month, Mercyhealth Medical Director Dr. Mark Goelzer said in a statement that Wolnak was on leave and “has been an excellent physician who is very well-liked by his patients, peers and the community.”
Wolnak’s lawyer said the surgeon hoped to return to the U.S. soon after fulfilling his legal obligations in New Zealand.
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