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Judge awards ATV rollover victim $2.7 million, finds RCMP officer partly liable

A judge has awarded a Quesnel man nearly $2.7 million in damages for the injuries he suffered four years ago while the passenger in a side-by-side all-terrain vehicle that went off a Prince George road as its driver tried to flee police.
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A judge has awarded a Quesnel man nearly $2.7 million in damages for the injuries he suffered four years ago while the passenger in a side-by-side all-terrain vehicle that went off a Prince George road as its driver tried to flee police.

There was a time when it looked like Jason Parlby would never walk again. He was able to recover to the point where he is now back on his feet, but in a decision issued this week, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Margot Fleming found the injuries remain significant enough to warrant a $2,678,470 payout.

She found the ATV's driver, Jamey Pelland, 65 per cent responsible and the pursuing officer, RCMP Cst. Paul Starr, 35 per cent liable. Parlby's counsel had argued Starr should be 80 per cent liable and Pelland 20 per cent while Starr's counsel submitted Parlby and Pelland were completely at fault.

The outcome stems from an Aug. 11, 2013, incident that began shortly before 3 a.m. when Starr, while heading south on Highway 97 in the Hart, saw the ATV head the wrong way down an exit ramp, cross the highway and head north.

Starr made a u-turn, caught up to Pelland and ordered him to pull over. But Pelland kept going and headed northeast on Northwood Pulp Mill Road.

About three minutes later, the vehicles collided as Starr was attempting to overtake Pelland. The ATV went off the road and down a steep embankment and came to rest upside down. Parlby was ejected and suffered several injuries including fractured vertebrae and a lacerated lung.

Fleming found that at one point Starr stopped for about a half-minute and turned off his emergency equipment, apparently to let another vehicle pass by. Starr then resumed the pursuit but with his emergency equipment still off, surprising Pelland and Parlby when he came up behind them. Starr then decided to overtake the ATV with a plan to stop at an upcoming intersection and warn oncoming traffic but instead made contact with the ATV.

Fleming "firmly" rejected as "simply implausible" Starr's claim that Pelland had tried to ram his car to force it off the road, given the remote chance of success Pelland would have had in making such a manouvre and the pattern damage found on the vehicles.

Rather, Fleming found Pelland was "startled and alarmed by the sudden reappearance of the police car without its emergency lights" and that could well have affected his focus on controlling the ATV which had been tracking poorly within its lane.

Fleming also suggested Starr's inexperience came into play, finding it likely he "was feeling panicked and not thinking clearly by the time he stopped the police car. He had had almost no dealings with drivers refusing to stop and had never been involved in a police pursuit."

She said Starr's plan to overtake Pelland and warn oncoming traffic at the intersection made little sense given the ATV's small size, low speed, light weight and headlights, the low volume of oncoming traffic and the straight, flat road that made for good visibility.

She found Starr decision to close the distance and overtake the ATV "breached the standard of care owed by a reasonable police officer in the circumstances." Fleming also found there was no dispute Pelland's conduct played a role.

Parlby admitted he was not wearing a seatbelt at the time but it was also noted the lap-style seatbelt had been replaced with a five-point harness. Fleming found Parlby not at fault for failing to wear the harness saying there was no evidence brought forward to show it was in working order. She also cast doubt on whether a lap belt would have prevented Parlby from being ejected in the rollover.

Fleming found Parlby to be credible when he testified, noting he readily acknowledged things that were not in his interest. As for Starr, Fleming went so far as to say he was "not a credible witness." 

"On several occasions during cross examination, Constable Starr refused to acknowledge material and obvious inconsistencies between his notes and his testimony," Fleming said in her reasons for decision. "His answers were also often indirect and self-serving."

Pelland did not show up for the trial.

The B.C. Prosecution Service decided against pursuing criminal charges against Starr after reviewing the results of an investigation by the Independent Investigations Office, the province's civilian-based police watchdog.

Married and the father of a young girl, Parlby was 25 years old at the time of the collision and had been completing an apprenticeship as an auto mechanic. His injuries cut that ambition short and he now works the front counter at a tire shop.

In reaching a figure for damages, Fleming attributed $1,265,141 to future loss of earning capacity, $1,008,027 to cost of future care, $290,000 to non-pecuniary damages, $67,650 to loss of past earning capacity, $35,000 to in-trust damages and $12,652 to special damages.

The full reasons for decision can be found with this story at pgcitizen.ca.