City worker accused in fatal collision testifies at trial

By Patrick Burles - @PatrickBurles on Twitter
March 9, 2018 - 5:39pm

LETHBRIDGE – “My belief was I was making the road safer.”

Scott Edward Erickson made the statement as he took the stand in his own defence Friday, Mar. 9.

He faces a charge of dangerous driving causing death in connection with a fatal collision on Nov. 13, 2015, on Whoop-Up Drive, in which 72-year-old Alan Johnston was killed after he rear-ended the front-end loader that Erickson was operating as a City of Lethbridge employee.

As a snow storm watch operator, Erickson said he was tasked – along with three others who worked shifts to provide 24-hour coverage for the city – with patrolling priority routes around Lethbridge, and to address any issues that he might find, such as snow and ice build up.

On the day in question, Erickson testified that he identified slowly melting snow on the north side of the median that separates east and west-bound Whoop-Up Drive as a problem. He said the water was running across the west-bound lanes and he feared it would freeze overnight, creating patches of black ice. He acknowledged that it was his idea to use a front-end loader to scoop up the snow, drive across three lanes of traffic and dump it on the grass, adding that when he shared the plan with his foreman, he was told, “Yeah, go ahead. Be careful.”

Erickson also refuted testimony from the city’s transportation coordinator, Ed Vervloet, who had said he was unaware of what was happening and that he would not have allowed it, had he known. Erickson stated that he asked Vervloet where the loader was and outlined his plan, adding, “He said OK.”

When defence lawyer Balfour Der asked why he used the loader for the job, Erickson replied, “It was the only piece of equipment to do the job.” Der then asked why he didn’t deploy any warning signs or call in assistance to run blocker trucks, to which Erickson said, “My belief was that people would see the loader,” adding, “It didn’t warrant the situation as I would be using more than one lane.”

Once he started removing snow, Erickson explained that he had to wait for breaks in traffic, before crossing Whoop-Up and dropping the snow from his bucket. He told the court that just before the collision occurred, he had decided to do one more run and that he would come back later, as traffic was increasing and making it more difficult to cross. He added that while he is aware that sun glare can be a problem on Whoop-Up, it was not an issue at the time.

While sitting with a full bucket of snow in the left-hand lane, close to the north-bound exit to University Drive, Scott said he was watching for a break in traffic when he noticed Johnston’s minivan crossing the bridge deck and staying in his lane.

“I realized he was staring in a downward position,” Erickson said of Johnston, adding that he had a “glazed-over” look on his face. “At that moment I knew he wasn’t scanning ahead.” Erickson said he put the loader in gear and started to move ahead, just as the minivan struck the back of the unit.

During cross examination from Crown prosecutor Bruce Ainscough, Erickson said they never really went over policy or safety practices at an October meeting, and that what he learned came from working, making the statement, “The older guys show you the ropes, I suppose.”

Erickson also stated that prior to the collision, there hadn’t been any close calls to speak of, reiterating that the sun was not a factor. When asked to explain the testimony of numerous witnesses who testified for the Crown, who said the sun limited visibility and cut their reaction time to seeing the loader, Erickson responded, “They were not paying attention.”

Ainscough then asked Erickson why he didn’t seek help from other city workers who would have been available that day.

“If I needed help my foreman would have ensured that I had it,” he said. Ainscough then asked Erickson if he thought he needed help, to which he said he didn’t think so, before saying, “But I’m not always right.”

Co-worker says he would have done the same thing

Following Erickson’s time on the stand, the defence called Michael Seltenhammer to testify, who was the city’s first snow storm watch operator.

He said that snow runoff across Whoop-Up Drive is a big problem, saying that if the water froze it would be “devastating for traffic.”

“I would have taken a loader out to pick up and move [the snow] onto the grass,” said Seltenhammer, when asked by Der how he would have handled the situation.

“I’m glad that was my day off,” he continued. “It could have been me.”

Seltenhammer proceeded to tell the court that he had once been part of a snow removal effort on Whoop-Up, in which he used a loader to remove snow from the roadway. He did concede that it was planned during the day by senior staff and executed at 2 a.m., with two blocker trucks preventing traffic from travelling in the two lanes he was working in.

Moving into cross examination, Seltenhammer told Ainscough that his response to the situation would have been “The exact way that Scott attempted to.” He did acknowledge however, that it could have been arranged in the evening when traffic would have been lighter.

Trial put on hold until June

After hearing from two character witnesses, Der said they have a traffic reconstruction expert who they intend to call, but that he was is currently in Newfoundland and not available.

Following a break to coordinate everyone’s schedules, they found the earliest time for the trial to reconvene and adjourned it to June 18.

Judge Eric Peterson pointed out that even after the trial concludes in June, it is unlikely that he will be able to provide an immediate decision, meaning it will probably have to be adjourned again.

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