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Number of Accident Victims weighs heavily in Sentencing for Driver in Humboldt Broncos Bus Crash

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When determining sentencing for a driving-related offence, a judge considers mitigating and aggravating factors, such as the driver’s past driving history and conduct during the accident.  However, despite many mitigating factors for the driver responsible for the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, the Court applied a harsher sentence outside the normal range for the offence of dangerous driving causing death, due to the devastating consequences of the crash.

On March 22nd, a Saskatchewan court sentenced the transport truck driver who caused the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, to eight years in prison, following a conviction for 16 counts of dangerous driving causing death and 13 counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm.  A concurrent sentence was applicable in this case because the offences all arose out of the same event, and since Sidhu was sentenced to eight years for one count of dangerous driving causing death, the total amount of jail time does not exceed eight years.

The key objectives of sentencing for dangerous driving-related offences is the denunciation of the current offence and deterrence against repeating the offence in the future.  However, the sentence must be proportionate to the seriousness of the offence and the degree to which the offender was responsible.  Further, a decision on sentencing, as set out in the Criminal Code, s. 718.2, requires the Court to consider any mitigating and aggravating factors and also, to base sentencing on past decisions involving similar offences and under similar circumstances.

In R. v. Sidhu (2019), Justice Cardinal concluded that the driver’s prolonged inattention caused the crash.  Sidhu gave evidence that he was focused on the tarps on his trailer (which he previously stopped to adjust because a tarp was flapping) and he failed to take note of five signs which indicated that an intersection or stop sign was ahead.  The judge found that Sidhu had a high degree of moral blameworthiness since he was not only inattentive for a prolonged period, but was also a professional driver who was operating a large and heavy tractor trailer truck that carries the potential for substantial destruction and injury and therefore requires a higher degree of care and attention.  However, the most significant factor in Sidhu’s substantial sentence is the fact that his actions resulted in 16 deaths and 13 injured persons, and the survivors and families of the accident victims are enormously and permanently impacted by the event.

A key mitigating factor in Sidhu’s sentence was the fact that he entered an early guilty plea to prevent the victims’ families from having to relive the tragedy during a drawn-out trial. Other mitigating factors include Sidhu’s clean driving record; his profound remorse for the accident; Sidhu’s relatively young age (30 at the time of sentencing); the fact that he was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol during the collision; and the possibility that he may be deported as a result of his criminal conviction.

A previous case on which Justice Cardinal based her sentencing decision is R. V. Saini (2018), where the defendant driver was sentenced to six years in prison.  Saini involved an experienced transport truck driver who was convicted of four counts of dangerous driving causing death and nine counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm, after he failed to slow down in a construction zone and caused a crash involving twenty vehicles on Highway 401.

At the time of the crash, Mr. Saini was in a well-marked construction zone where there was a planned reduction from three lanes to one lane, which caused many vehicles ahead to stop or slow down. Evidence from an accident reconstructionist suggested that the driver had not slowed down and was travelling about 102-104 km/hr until about 1.5 seconds before he struck a car that was almost at a stop in the middle lane. Justice Shaughnessy rejected evidence presented by defence medical experts suggesting that the accident occurred because the accused was experiencing a ‘micro sleep’ or was sleepy and was ‘driving without an awareness’ (DWA) due to his condition.  The judge acknowledged that Saini may suffer from moderate sleep apnea.  However, he did not find evidence to support that the driver was in a ‘micro sleep’ or misapplied the pedal at the time of the accident.

Justice Shaughnessy ruled that Saini’s actions were “a marked departure from the standard of care expected of a reasonable person” and displayed a pattern of driving that constituted “a significant and substantial period of inattentiveness”: he was driving at a grossly excessive speed given the circumstances of the accident; he knew from past experience that there were lane closures at this location; he had an unobstructed view but failed to observe traffic ahead and take actions to avoid it; and Saini did not apply his brakes or gear down until 1.5 seconds prior to impact.

R. v. Lavoie (2017) is another case that was referenced by Justice Cardinal in Sidhu. Lavoie involved a transport truck driver who caused the death of three High School students and severe injuries to a flag-person employed by the road construction company. The defendant driver was charged with three counts of dangerous driving causing death and one count of dangerous driving causing bodily harm, in connection with the accident. The accident occurred within a highway construction zone in Saskatchewan, when the truck driver crashed into the rear of the teenager’s small car which was lawfully parked at the side of the highway. The tractor trailer driver did not reduce his highway speed as required by the construction signage (indicating a 60 km/hr maximum) and when asked, didn’t recollect entering the construction zone or what led him to crash into the parked vehicle.

Similar to the Sidhu case, the truck driver in Lavoie was not impaired by drugs or alcohol at the time of the crash; he had a clean driving record with only one prior offence for ‘over 80’ 16 years before the accident; and he was extremely remorseful about the tragic outcome due to the accident. He was also assessed as unlikely to re-offend.

On the issue of denunciation, the judge in Lavoie stated that judges are very critical of speeding and dangerous driving in highway construction zones (which has become increasingly common in recent years), particularly involving truck drivers who drive potential “death machines”, since such actions place construction workers and other road users at substantial risk.  The judge also considered the aggravating conditions for the offence (including the three tragic deaths, speeding in a construction zone, the higher driving standards expected for professional drivers, and the requirement of greater care for a driver of a large vehicle) as well as mitigating factors (such as the defendant’s sincere remorse, the fact that he plead guilty, the absence of alcohol or drugs in his system, and his good driving record).  The defendant was given a concurrent 3-year jail sentence for all dangerous driving convictions, followed by a five-year prohibition from driving.

In Sidhu, Justice Cardinal found that even though the driver’s actions were not deliberately careless (unlike Saini), the Sidhu case dictates a sentence of more than six years “due to the horrific consequences of his actions” and also because these types of dangerous driving offences, particularly those involving large commercial vehicles, “require a strong message of deterrence and denunciation”.

The eight-year sentence in Sidhu is outside the normal range of sentences in Canadian case law for a similar offence, based on the 2 ½ to 6-year range in sentencing for the dangerous driving cases cited in the Sidhu trial. Clearly, the large number of accident victims in this case weighed heavily in the harsher sentence for Sidhu, as evidenced when we compare Sidhu to other similar cases where commercial truck drivers were found negligent in causing deaths to accident victims but received a significantly shorter sentence.

Nevertheless, Sidhu’s sentence is less than the maximum sentences for these offences. At the time of the accident (and therefore applicable in Sidhu), the maximum sentence for dangerous driving causing death was 14 years and the maximum sentence for dangerous driving causing bodily harm was 10 years.  These maximums were increased on December 18, 2018 to life imprisonment and 14 years, respectively, which signifies the seriousness of these offences under Canadian law.

The fact that an accident victim was killed in an accident caused by driver error does not signify a finding of dangerous driving causing death.  In order to reach a finding of ‘dangerous driving’ under Canadian law, the defendant driver’s actions must be a marked departure from that expected of a reasonable person in similar circumstances.  And, as noted in the above cited cases, the standards for a professional driver of a tractor trailer truck are higher than for the general public.

In R. v. Roy (2012), the Supreme Court of Canada acquitted a man on the charge of dangerous driving causing death when the Court found that although the man’s driving was dangerous when viewed objectively, there was no evidence that the defendant wasn’t driving in a normal and prudent manner before he made a momentary decision to pull into traffic when it wasn’t safe to do so. This case involved a defendant who stopped at an intersection and then turned into the path of a tractor trailer truck. The collision resulted in the death of his passenger as well as injury to himself.  The accident happened during poor visibility conditions on a snow-covered rural road, and the driver seemingly miscalculated the distance of the tractor trailer truck from the intersection.  The driver was found guilty of dangerous driving in a lower court but the conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court.

If you have been charged with a driving-related offence, such as dangerous driving or impaired driving, talk to a highly experienced driving offence lawyer at Kruse Law.   Our team has a strong track record of successfully defending persons who have been charged with driving offences and we fully understand what’s needed in building a strong defence and winning your case in court.

Posted under Criminal Charges, Impaired Driving Charges

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