Man who survived crash where car rolled down hill later died by accidentally drinking anti-freeze - coroner

The coroner said the ingestion was an accident.
The coroner said the ingestion was an accident. Photo credit: Getty Images

A man who veered his car off a road and rolled 200 metres down a hill was found to have survived the crash and instead later died by accidentally drinking out of his vehicle's coolant bottle.

A coroner's report released on Wednesday said a post-mortem examination found that while the man's injuries from the crash contributed to his death, he ultimately died from metabolic acidosis following ingestion of ethylene glycol.

On the morning of March 6, 2019, Pryor Lee, 36, set off with his dog on his trip from his home in Greymouth to the Marlborough Sounds where he worked as a skipper on a one-week on, one-week off roster.

According to a coroner's report released on Wednesday, at 11:37am Lee sent a message to his partner which said he was tired and indicated he was going to stop and have a nap.

He messaged his partner again at 12:04pm but that was the last she heard from him.

The coroner found at some point during the afternoon Lee drove off the road while travelling down the Te Towaka-Port Ligar Road just north of the Waitata Bay intersection and his car rolled down a steep hillside.

Despite being seriously injured in the crash, Lee was able to get out of the vehicle and spent the night outdoors until he gained the strength to make his way to a nearby house in French Pass.

Lee told the owners of the house he was driving along the road when he saw a van in the opposite direction overtaking a car, which caused him to suddenly "twitch" his steering wheel and veer off the road.

The owners said Lee was "clearly bashed up" with bruises and cuts on his feet, legs and face.

The report said the owners gave him tea and toast as well as a phone to contact his partner on, but Lee refused their offer to call emergency services to airlift him to the hospital because he feared they would take him to Wellington.

The owners drove Lee to Nelson hospital and said he was talkative and very anxious because he could not find his dog. Lee also complained of pain in his chest and was breathing heavily, but was adamant they didn't need to call an ambulance.

They arrived at Nelson Hospital shortly after midday where Lee was assessed and the homeowners left.

At around 3:40pm Lee's condition deteriorated rapidly. He was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit where he was put on a ventilator as he was suffering from severe acidosis (a build-up of acid in his blood) as well as hyperkalemia (high level of potassium in the blood).

Despite full resuscitation attempts, Lee could not be revived and was pronounced dead.

Medical evidence found that Lee suffered from depression, anxiety and difficulty with sleep and had been prescribed medication to help, as well as significant underlying coronary artery disease.  

Lee's toxicology results detected ethylene glycol or antifreeze, which is used in car radiators, which the forensic pathologist ruled was the cause of his death.

Police investigating the scene found the coolant overflow bottle in Lee's car had been tipped over and the top of it was removed, making it possible for Lee to take the coolant water from the bottle.

Lee also described being "insatiably thirsty" after the crash. 

The coroner said the ingestion was an accident.

Police also made efforts to identify the drivers of the two vehicles that Lee said were driving toward him, but local residents had not seen any vehicles that fitted the description in the area.

Dangerous road

Lee has not been the only person that has been in a car accident on Te Towaka-Port Ligar Road.

Stuff reported a man died following a crash on Te Towaka-Port Ligar Road near Cissy Bay in December 2021 and a woman died on the same road after the vehicle crashed and caught on fire in December 2020.

Another man died after his car left the same narrow cliffside road and plunged 200 metres in 2013. 

Following Lee's death, Senior Constable Simon Burbery of the Tasman District Serious Crash Unit found there were dangers to drivers travelling on Te Towaka-Port Ligar Road and advised the Marlborough District Council to consider installing reflective roadside marker posts.

"The particular danger to drivers travelling to the outer Marlborough Sounds is that the edge of the road on their left falls away and holds grave consequence, if a driver drifts too far to the left when negotiating left-hand curves," the report said.

The council has installed reflected posts where hazards on the road have been identified but said it is difficult to maintain the posts due to harsh weather conditions in the area.

The council is trialling more robust posts that are intended to be installed on the road once the trail is completed.