Verdict on fatal collision hinged on whether driver had 'guilty mind'

A B.C. Supreme Court Justice's decision to find a woman not guilty of dangerous driving causing death for a fatal collision near Valemount three years ago came down to a pair of key legal concepts.

In issuing his reasons on Tuesday, Justice Ron Tindale noted that, through her lawyer, Vanessa White conceded that her actions on the morning of July 4, 2017 amounted to "actus reus" in the sense that they were dangerous to the public.

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While that would be good enough to establish liability in a civil trial, to gain a criminal conviction, the Crown must further prove beyond reasonable doubt that they amounted to "mens rea" or that she had a "guilty mind."

For Tindale, that was the "contentious issue."

On that note, he referred to a 2012 Supreme Court of Canada decision, R v Roy, that stressed the accused's actions must have been a "marked departure from the standard of care which a reasonable person would have exercised in the same circumstances."

"Simple carelessness, to which even the most prudent drivers may occasionally succumb, is generally not criminal," the SCC Justices continued.

Summarizing the incident, Tindale said White and her boyfriend had been driving a Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck from a dealership in Victoria to one in Edmonton. After stopping for breakfast and gas in Valemount, they were back on Highway 5 and heading north with White behind the wheel.

At bit after 6:30 a.m., she came upon a logging truck that was hauling 19-metre-long spruce logs and while in a legal passing area, attempted to make the maneuver that led to the tragic consequences. Driving a Saturn car, Dwayne Needham of McBride was heading south and towards White's pickup truck.

They swerved to avoid each other but instead collided on the highway's shoulder. Needham died at the scene.

Tindale's task was to assess testimony and evidence presented by four witnesses heard over four days during the prior week - the logging truck driver, White's boyfriend and an RCMP collision reconstructionist, all called by the Crown, and an expert on collisions called on White's behalf.

In the end, he dismissed some testimony in favour of others.

Specifically, he dismissed the logging truck driver's assertion that White had been traveling at 150 km/h as she approached his vehicle and accepted the boyfriend's testimony that her speed was 110 km/h and that she had "peeked out" to make sure the lane was clear before she made the move.

Tindale did accept the logging truck driver's testimony that when he first saw Needham approaching from the opposite direction, he was less than 500 metres away and did not have his headlights on.

The RCMP reconstructionist and the expert witness agreed Needham was travelling at about 115 km/h. The reconstructionist also testified that 115 km/h was a "good speed" which the Justice took to mean it was "not unreasonable."

Tindale found that when White made her peek, Needham's vehicle was not visible and while it did come into her view as she was making the pass, it would have been more than 200 metres ahead of her, "making it difficult to determine the closing speed" particularly given the car's headlights were off.

Tindale found that White had accelerated to 135 km/h when making the pass and when she applied the brakes it was a bare 2.3 seconds before the crash according to expert estimates. By that time she was alongside the logging truck, whose cruise control had been set at 100 km/h, Tindale found White had no chance to retreat to the northbound lane.

At the time, White had held a class 5 probationary licence from Quebec for about 13 months, but in accordance with the SCC's decision regarding experience, Tindale chose to put little weight on that matter. Other than that she was a new driver, Tindale said he did not have any evidence as to her ability to drive and that White had previously driven the truck while on the trip from Victoria.

Tindale said a reasonable person could have taken steps to avoid the collision "if possible" but would have had only seconds to decide whether to complete the pass or abort the maneuver.

"Unfortunately, both the accused and Mr. Needham took evasive action by driving towards the shoulder of the southbound lane and then mirrored one another coming back into the southbound lane and ultimately back onto the shoulder where the collision occurred," Tindale said.

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