Ethe child does not want to celebrate his birthday. The other suddenly starts crying because he misses his friend. The third finally asks his parents for permission to die so that he can see him again: a five-year-old boy whom Stefan found in a cage with eleven children and adults in the camp of the town of Toppenstedt in Year I. In Lower Saxony on June 24, 2023, his wheel loader arm drove around for fun. The child wants to see again the five-year-old who died when the forks dug into the ground and the box overturned so quickly that no one could react. Danica B. deliberately talks about her son's three friends. “I want everyone involved to know that an entire kindergarten group is still grieving seven months later.”
As well as the family of the adult Dominic S. who died in the accident, B. and her husband are co-plaintiffs against 44-year-old Stefan I in the Lüneburg District Court. As her lawyer was unable to attend Tuesday's sentencing, she said: “I'm just a mother who has lost her only beloved child.” And: “It's hard to bear that responsibility lies in everything. The husband allowed the child to go with us “because we expected the highest security”. Of course you entrust your children to others. “Don't we all do that?”
“I'll feel guilty for the rest of my life”
The State Prosecutor's Office accuses I. in two cases of negligent homicide and in eleven cases of negligent bodily injury. Several children suffered serious injuries, including crushed skulls and lacerations. Two of my three daughters were also in cages. According to the prosecutor's office, the well-known farmer with Toppenstedt roots did not sufficiently confirm the I. box. Post-crash footage shows that the safety bolts were not inserted.
On the first day of the trial, I. admitted that he had not checked the bolts immediately before the decisive journey. This wasn't the first trip that day, and nothing had happened in previous years of father-son camp trips. The kids were always excited about it.
At the beginning of the trial in January, the parties involved got into a long debate: was the box overturned caused by a technical fault? The defendant himself had advanced the theory that the bolts might have come loose during the last ride due to wear. The invited expert stated that he had to check it. On Tuesday, he presented his findings: the relevant parts were not damaged. “I have no evidence that the safety bolts could have come loose during operation,” he says. Does Kiefer wince as he says this. Conversely, this means that they must be open from the start.
This is also the view of the state prosecutor, who in his statement demands a prison sentence of one year and six months, which can be suspended for three years. The prosecutor says the breaches of duty of care were “serious”. Not only did I extend the safety bolts, but he also did not activate the additional locking switch. It is not a “momentary failure”, so the fine is not enough. He refrains from the usual additional monetary claim as the defendant may make substantial claims for damages. The civil litigation is still pending.
“It's human error”
In his statement, the lawyer for the S. family insists that “the defendant be judged according to the charge” without mentioning a specific sentence. It is also important to hear the story of relatives. Reports and theories about a technical fault circulated in the village and caused additional stress to his customers. “It's human error.”
Does the defender show empathy towards relatives. A similar fate befell him personally, and the process was also difficult for him: “I hope with all my heart that you can endure the pain.” What is clear is that his client breached his duty of care. But he had every right to ask questions and seek clarification because he was convinced he had secured the box. “It's not a denial of the crime, it's not a denial of responsibility,” says the defense attorney. He is seeking an “appropriate suspended sentence.”
In his last word, I. apologizes once more. “I'm really sorry,” he says. “I will feel the guilt of the day of the accident for the rest of my life.” The District Court sentenced him to one year and three months imprisonment without fine, which may be suspended for three years. According to the collegium, the fine would be too small, says the chairman. He realized that such rides were fun and how handling a wheel loader was becoming the norm. But: “Unfortunately, routine can be fatal.” Such a criminal trial could explain the cause in the first place. “No matter how we sanction it: there is no punishment that will somehow make up for what happened,” says the chairman. “I think everyone in this room knows that you will never do that again.”
The judgment is not yet legally binding. The state prosecutor and the defense attorney do not want to challenge it, the co-plaintiffs have not yet made a decision.