Homer farmer sentenced in death of teen worker

The Cortland County Courthouse

CORTLAND, N.Y. — A Homer farmer was sentenced to 60 days in jail Thursday in Cortland County Court after a 14-year-old boy died on his farm in 2015 while illegally operating a piece of heavy equipment to bale hale.

Luke Park, 37, the owner of Park Family Farm at 3036 East River Road, was sentenced to 60 days of intermittent incarceration and three years of probation as part of a plea deal. Park will serve his time at the Cortland County Correctional Facility every Sunday through Tuesday starting on Jan. 27 and must also pay $10,500 in restitution for Unemployment Insurance Contributions he did not collect.

Park pleaded guilty to Endangering the Welfare of a Child, Prohibited Employment of a Minor and Willful Failure to Pay a Contribution to the Unemployment Insurance Fund, misdemeanors.

Fourteen-year-old Alex Smith, a neighbor of Park’s, was using a New Holland LS170 Skidloader with a hydraulic lift and fork attachment to bale hay for cow feed when he died on July 1, 2015, according to a state Attorney General press release. Park told State Police he found Smith’s body pinned under the skid loader’s hydraulic lift and a bale of hay, with the skid loader still running. Smith’s chest and abdomen were crushed by the skid loader resulting in his death by mechanical asphyxiation an autopsy found, according to the release. Child labor laws prohibit minors from operating such equipment, the release notes.

Park was arraigned on July 13, 2016 for endangering the welfare of a child, illegal hours of work for minors, prohibited employment of minors, all misdemeanors, as well as eight felony counts of falsifying business records and filing false unemployment insurance contribution returns with the state and misdemeanor willful failure to pay unemployment insurance contributions.

The tragedy of Smith’s accidental death while working a farm job he loved was palpable at Park’s sentencing.

“Alex Smith’s life was tragically cut short as a result of an accident,” said Judge Julie Campbell.

Smith thought he was taking initiative when he was operating the skid loader, but when was actually taking a risk, Campbell continued.

“In my estimation, he took that risk because he loved the idea of farming.”

Farming provided Alex Smith with pride, purpose and self-confidence, Campbell said. And while Smith was not cut out for a traditional classroom, “he found a classroom in his neighbor’s farm,” she said.

“This court is frankly ill-equipped to mete out justice in this case,” Campbell said.

Reading from Alex’s father’s statement to the court, Campbell quoted him saying, “It was an accident and no one was more at fault than his mother and myself.”

Neither Park nor the Smiths knew Alex Smith was working on the farm the day he died, according to Alex Smith’s father.

Smith’s mother wrote in the portion of her statement read at the sentencing that she feels sadness, not anger, over his death.

“Alex loved the farm and loved working on it,” his mother wrote to the court.

“Alex was like part of our family…” Park told Campbell during his sentencing, apologizing for the accident. “I’m terribly sorry anything like this ever happened.”

Park cries every night since the accident, said Paul Carey, Park’s defense attorney. “Every day he revisits that scene,” Carey said.

Smith’s parents continued to have a relationship with Park after the boy’s death, Carey said.

“Alex’s parents love this man so much, they asked him to be a pallbearer at his funeral,” Carey said.

Park was up front and cooperative with law enforcement officers during the investigation, Carey said.Park also admitted he “… employed other minors on his dairy farm and required them to work approximately 60 hours a week …” according to press releases. He also confessed most of his workers were paid under the table, causing an underpayment of Unemployment Insurance Contributions of about $10,500.

Employees that are 16 and 17 are not allowed to work more than 48 hours per week when school is out, according to the release.

Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations a person can do, Campbell noted at sentencing.

In 2016, 417 people died in farming-related injuries, according to the The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s 21 deaths among every 100,000 workers, according to the institute.

“Transportation incidents, which include tractor overturns were the leading cause of death for these farmers and farm workers,” the Institute wrote in an April article on its website. “Farmers are at very high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries…”

The Institute estimates 720,000 people under the age of 20 work on American farms.