LETHBRIDGE – The Crown has concluded their case in the dangerous driving causing death trial for a City of Lethbridge employee.
As part of their final day of evidence on Thursday, Mar. 8, they called a number of drivers forward to testify who had encountered a front-end loader on Whoop-Up Drive and experienced the conditions in play on the day of the fatal collision.
The judge overseeing the trial of Scott Edward Erickson has already heard that the collision occurred around 3:30 on the afternoon of Nov. 13, 2015, when a minivan hit the back of a city front-end loader in the left lane on west-bound Whoop-Up Drive, near the exit to north-bound University Drive. The 72-year-old driver of the minivan, Alan Johnston, died as a result of the collision.
In a statement played in court that Erickson made to police, he said he was using the loader to scoop up snow that had built up along the concrete median that separates east and west Whoop-Up and then dumping it on the grass just off the road.
The prosecution saved two of their more impactful witnesses for last, calling Scott and Samara Dewey to the stand near the end of the day.
Scott told the court that he and his wife were driving west-bound in the left-hand lane on Whoop-Up around 3:30 p.m. on the day in question, saying that with glare from the sun his visibility was limited. He said they encountered the front-end loader as they came up the hill.
“We didn’t see it right until the very last second,” Scott explained, stating that he had to swerve into the centre lane when his wife called out a warning. When asked by Crown prosecutor Bruce Ainscough how close they came to hitting the loader, Scott answered, “Within feet close… maybe 12 feet or something.”
Ainscough proceeded to ask if there had been any warning of the vehicle that was stopped in their lane, to which Scott replied, “No, there was no pilons or lights or anything like that. It caught us off guard.”
Samara entered the courtroom next, echoing Scott’s account of what happened and adding, “We would have hit it if I didn’t say something.”
She acknowledged that visibility is often poor at certain times of day on Whoop-Up, but that they assumed traffic would maintain a certain speed.
During cross examination by defence lawyer Balfour Der, he asked both if the sun glare was a factor for the entire trip across Whoop-Up. They replied that visibility wasn’t an issue on the bridge deck crossing the river and that it started to deteriorate while climbing the hill. Der then questioned if they saw the loader while scanning ahead earlier, leaving both to say that they hadn’t. They also agreed that despite the glare, they didn’t think they were travelling too fast for the conditions – they both said they were close to the speed limit of 90 km/h.
Earlier in the day, retired Lethbridge Police Service member David Maze testified that he was heading home from work on west bound Whoop-Up between 3:15 and 3:30 p.m., noting that due to sun glare it was “Almost near impossible to see.”
While crossing the bridge deck in the right-hand lane, Maze said the vehicle in front of him slowed down and moved to the centre lane. He then saw the front-end loader further up the hill, partially blocking his lane, so he slowed down as well and moved to the centre, followed by another vehicle behind him. He said it appeared to be waiting for traffic to pass.
“This is kind of dangerous,” Maze told Crown prosecutor Bruce Ainscough, when asked for his thoughts upon seeing the loader in his lane.
During cross examination from defence lawyer Balfour Der, Maze agreed with a statement he emailed to police after the collision, in which he said, “lighting and line of site were not a problem.” He told the court that while he needed sunglasses and had to keep the visor of his car down, he could see and felt comfortable travelling at the speed limit. Maze also acknowledged again that he could see the loader and changed lanes while still on the bridge deck.
Aran Shortt later took the stand, saying she was taking a taxi home around 3 p.m. that day.
She recalled making a comment to the driver about how blinding the sun was, before they noticed the vehicle ahead of them slowing down. Shortt said she could then see the outline of a large piece of equipment in the left lane ahead of them.
As they slowly approached, Shortt said the loader “shot like an arrow across three lanes [of traffic],” adding, “I was in complete shock.”
She stated that the loader went across Whoop-Up twice, saying that she felt afraid for the safety of other drivers.
When asked by Der during cross examination if Shortt was concerned about the taxi driver’s speed – she estimated it to be close to 90 km/h – due to reduced visibility from sun glare, she replied that she did not. She also agreed that despite her concerns regarding the loader, she did not call or ask the driver to call 911.
City transportation coordinator testifies
In addition to the witnesses, the Crown called upon the city’s transportation coordinator, Ed Vervloet.
Vervloet explained that the City of Lethbridge only uses plows to clear Whoop-Up Drive, as they move much faster by pushing snow to the side of the road at a high rate of speed, instead of stopping to remove it. When it comes to snow removal – scooping or blowing snow pushed into windrows into the back of a truck – he said they use blocker-trucks to shut-off access to the area.
During his examination, Ainscough asked Vervloet if he would have authorized Erickson to use a front-end loader to scoop snow from the median and dump it on grass next to Whoop-Up. Vervloet responded, “I would have said no, absolutely not.”
He also noted that 15 to 25 other employees would have also been available that day to assist Erickson, had he asked.
While being questioned by Der, he conceded they had not discussed the use of blocker-trucks during a meeting a month earlier and that snow storm watch operators like Erickson were hired to deal with a problem right away if they found one.
Der then asked Vervloet if he remembered a conversation around 1 p.m. on Nov. 13, in which Erickson shared his plan for using a loader to remove snow on Whoop-Up. “No, he did not,” replied Vervloet.
Next step in the trial
With the Crown having closed their case, the defence is now expected to begin calling evidence on Friday.
While questioning a witness earlier in the proceedings, Der told the court that Erickson intends to take the stand in his own defence.
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