By Connor Lynch
ST. CATHARINES — A Western Ontario farm worker was sentenced to five months in prison after the arm of a seeder that he was hauling swung out onto a highway and struck an oncoming vehicle, killing the driver instantly.
At the time of the accident, 25-year-old Benjamin Klunder had been working for Niagara region cash crop farmer Daryl Haanstra for six years. Klunder pled guilty to dangerous driving causing death and was sentenced last month. Sentences longer than three months cannot be served on weekends.
It was May 14, 2015 and Klunder had just finished planting on a gruelling schedule. He was in the tractor for the better part of 16 hours. Work began at 6 a.m. He finished at 9:35 p.m. He’d spent the day in the cab of a John Deere tractor, hauling a 20,000 lb. Kinze model 3600 seeder. “Haanstra regarded him as an exceptional employee, meticulous in his work,” wrote Judge Peter Wilkie.
Preparing the seeder arm or boom for the road is a four-step process, including three steps from the tractor cab: extending the trailer unit back, raising the boom, a single arm that extends out from both sides of the tractor, then rotating the boom 90 degrees so it runs parallel to the unit and in line with the middle of the tractor. Once completed, the tractor and seeder is 54 ft. long and 11 ft. 2-in. wide, fitting tightly within a single highway lane. In field position, the boom is 31 feet, 2 inches wide, and stretches out 15 feet from both sides of the seeder.
The last step requires the operator of the tractor to leave the cab and manually insert two pins. One of those is the rotation latch safety pin to secure the boom by locking it into place. Klunder did not leave his tractor to insert that pin.
However, even without the pin, the boom should not swing out from transport position as the hydraulic pressure holds it in place, unless there is a hydraulic failure or a hydraulic lever is accidentally held down.
“It is convenient to speak of the incident that brings Mr. Klunder to court as an accident,” Judge Wilkie wrote. “And certainly what occurred here was accidental in the sense of being unintentional and without malicious intent. But it is important to keep in mind that this was not an accident in the sense of being a chance event or one without apparent cause.”
Judge Wilkie’s reasons for sentencing don’t include when or how the boom swung out behind the tractor. But at some point after Klunder pulled westbound onto Regional Road 65, west of Niagara Falls, the boom swung into field position. One end dangled 15 feet over the shoulder of the road while the other end hung 15 feet across the lane of oncoming traffic. The wheels on the boom were but three feet from the ground. There were no lights on the boom.
The boom struck a mailbox, ripping it from its post in the ground. Klunder continued another 120 feet when a metal roadway sign was ripped out of the ground.
From the other direction, a vehicle approached, driven by 56-year-old Randall Moore. Single and childless, he was the sole caretaker of an aging mother and a sister with a medical disability.
Moore did not break or swerve as the top of his vehicle was sheared off by the 10-ton metal wall. He was killed instantly by blunt force trauma to the head and chest. The vehicle he was driving careened off the road and struck a fence.
Klunder continued down the roadway. A few hundred metres later he struck a second mailbox. The homeowner heard a commotion and saw that Klunder had stopped the tractor to rotate the boom from field position into transport position. He then continued again down the road. The homeowner got into her car, followed Klunder, and eventually pulled in front of the tractor to stop him.
They spoke briefly and he offered to compensate her in cash for the damage to the mailbox. “His affect was calm and normal and betrayed no indication that he was aware of the tragic incident that he had caused moments before,” Judge Wilkie wrote.
Klunder was arrested at the farm at 7:30 a.m. the next morning.
The now 27-year-old Klunder, the eldest of four children, was married in March of this year. He is “a hardworking man of good character,” Judge Wilkie wrote.
There were 32 character reference letters filed on his behalf and several character witnesses testified. “Those who know him well find him to be a trustworthy, respectful, caring, dependable, well-mannered person. It is not surprising that they find it hard to believe that he finds himself in this position,” Judge Wilkie said.
Klunder’s lawyer, Roger Yachetti, had sought a sentence that would mean no prison time, given what he described as an “absence of moral culpability.”
Judge Wilkie rejected that defence. “For whatever reason Mr. Klunder decided to head out onto that road without ensuring that the 10-ton hydraulic boom he was pulling would stay in place and then continued on without checking behind him to see if that was the case. In my view those circumstances speak to a significant degree of blameworthiness.”
Klunder’s five-month prison sentence will be followed by one year’s probation. He is also required to complete 50 hours of community service work, and is prohibited from driving for one year.