After three and a half days of testimony last week involving five civilians and four expert witnesses in Invermere Provincial Court, the man accused of causing the death of a California family in 2011 will learn his fate in late April.
Jaswinder Singh Bagri was charged with four counts of dangerous driving causing death after a horrific accident near Olive Lake on Highway 93 through Kootenay National Park in July 2011. Mr. Bagri testified with the help of an interpreter on Wednesday, March 19th.
Under questioning from Crown prosecutor Lynal Doerksen, Mr. Bagri testified that, as he recalls, he was driving about 60 kilometres per hour to 70 kilometres per hour around a corner at the time of the accident.
“To me it felt as if I was going a little too fast,” Mr. Bagri told the court.
“I suggest to you that you were going faster than that, that you were going 80 kilometres an hour or more,” said Mr. Doerksen.
“No, I was not going so fast,” said Mr. Bagri. “Going too fast is wrong. If I’m going 60 kilometres an hour to 70 kilometres an hour that’s okay. But if I’m going 100 kilometres an hour or 105 kilometres an hour that is wrong. Even 80 kilometres an hour is wrong.”
The final speed sign before the corner was a speed advisory sign of 60 kilometres an hour.
Mr. Bagri was driving his unloaded flatdeck B-train commercial tractor trailer southbound on Highway 93 through Kootenay National Park on July 22nd 2011, when, according to testimony from multiple witnesses (including him), Mr. Bagri lost control of his vehicle near Olive Lake, then skidded, jackknifed and crossed the centre line.
Although none of the witnesses could see it, a northbound Dodge camper van towing a Suzuki SUV was now in the path of the jackknifed semi. Mr. Bagri testified he was unaware of the camper van until he felt the impact of the two vehicles colliding.
In the camper was a family of four — Robert Howard, 48, his wife Ana-Maria Dias, 50, and their two children Veronica, 9, and Samantha, 11 — from Palo Alto, California on vacation in B.C. The tractor trailer smashed into the camper and SUV, pinning the two smaller vehicles against the highway barrier, which ignited all three vehicles and trapped the family inside the blazing camper. All four died in the fire.
Mr. Doerksen also questioned Mr. Bagri about a brake check area that witnesses said they saw Mr. Bagri pull into and then quickly pull back out of, just before Mr. Bagri began to descend from the pass near Olive Lake — the same descent on which the crash occurred. Truck driving school instructor Rocky Korchinski had earlier testified that brake check stops should take 10 minutes.
“I slowed down and pumped the brakes three or four times. From that you can tell,” testified Mr. Bagri. “All I did was take a chance; to me it seemed as if everything was in order.”
“I suggest to you the reason you didn’t stop at the brake check was that you didn’t want to get stuck behind traffic,” said Mr.
Doerksen. “I suggest that attitude carried forward and you didn’t respect the (speed advisory) sign (of 60 kilometres an hour).”
“No, nothing like that,” said Mr. Bagri, who also testified he had never seen the other vehicle, nor had he looked at photos of the accident later on.
Mr. Bagri testified he had the jake brake — which is similar to an engine brake — on the third setting while descending. Mr. Korchinski earlier testified his school teaches drivers to use jake brakes to descend in good conditions, but to avoid using them, or use them extremely lightly, when going downhill in snow, ice or rain. Conditions were wet, rainy and slick on the day of the accident.
Mr. Korchinski also testified speed advisory signs give the uppermost recommended speed for small vehicles during good conditions.
Both sides made closing arguments on Thursday, March 20th.
Defence lawyer Selwyn Russel Chamberlain asserted his client was non-negligent, saying the error was due to the use of the jake brake and other circumstances.
“Though the results of this accident were devastating, my client did not act negligibly,” he said. “The cause of this accident had nothing to do with the failure to check or not check the brakes. It would appear as far as all regulations are concerned, the mechanical brakes were properly adjusted.”
“(Mr. Bagri) was trying to hit the service brakes opposed to the jake brake just before the accident,” he said, noting the expert evidence made it clear that the jake brake applied together with the foot brake exacerbated the jackknifing of the tractor trailer.
“The sole cause of this accident was the locking up of the rear wheels with the use of the jake brake, the roadway was wet on a curve with a trailer unloaded,” he said. “The jake brake brought on maximum stoppage of the rear tractor unit, causing the jackknife.”
Mr. Doerksen countered that the problem with Mr. Bagri’s defence is his choices “created a situation he didn’t need to be in.”
“He was in over his head,” said Mr. Doerksen, citing similar cases in which drivers were convicted of dangerous driving causing death. He noted Mr. Bagri’s misapplication of his truck’s jake brakes played a big role in the crash — but even more importantly he was driving over the centre line at the time of the collision.
“This is not a momentary lapse,” Mr. Doerksen said. “He deliberately put his vehicle over the centre line to try to carry speed around the corner.”
The trial was carried out by judge alone, with no jury present. Judge Grant Sheard’s decision will be issued when the trial resumes on Monday, April 28th.
Mr. Chamberlain said he will be involved in a two-month trial in Newfoundland at that time, and declined to appear via telephone; instead, an agent will appear on his behalf.
If Mr. Bagri is found guilty, a sentencing hearing will be in May at the earliest.