Opinion: $1,600 fines in teen’s Burnaby death sting my emotions

Chris Campbell

It’s never enough. No matter what court sentences are handed out after someone is killed, it’s never going to feel like it’s enough.

Not to the families of the victim. Not to the friends of the victim. Not to the community in which the death happened.

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I try and remember that when considering the two $1,600 fines handed out to two men who were found guilty of driving without due care and attention in connection with the death of 14-year-old Fernanda Girotto at a Burnaby crosswalk two years ago.

Judge David St. Pierre – according to this CTV Vancouver story – said the two men, Paul Oliver Wong and Kai Man Cheu, were not being sentenced for Girotto’s death, but for a “momentary” lapse in judgment while driving.

In that context, I guess it makes sense. But it still burns. It burns that a young life can be taken and this is all there is in punishment.

The two men aren’t even prohibited from driving. Hopefully the guilt forces them to pay attention while driving. Hopefully media attention to this story will remind people to be more carefully. Hopefully the traffic light erected at the intersection where Girotto died has made a significant difference. Hopefully Girotto's family finds some closure.

Hopefully...

The Brazilian exchange student was struck on the crossing on Cariboo Road near the Highway 1 overpass, first by a pickup truck driven by Wong and then by a car driven by Cheu after he passed Wong’s stopped truck, according to evidence presented in court.

Both men pleaded not guilty after being charged with driving without due care and attention and other Motor Vehicle Act infractions.

crosswalk memorial
A Cariboo Road shrine pays tribute to Fernanda Girotto, a 15-year-old hit and killed on a crosswalk nearby. - Jennifer Gauthier

Wong’s lawyer, David Fai, argued Wong, who testified that he had not seen Girotto until the last split second before hitting her, had driven in a prudent manner and that the collision had been a tragic accident.

Fai argued Girotto’s dark clothing, the rain and the crosswalk design were the factors that led to the tragedy, not careless driving by Wong.

Cheu’s lawyer argued his client would have been obligated look out for reasonably foreseeable risks on the road as a prudent driver but that a pedestrian lying on the street on a dark and rainy morning was not a risk that was reasonably foreseeable.

Judge David St. Pierre, however, said it didn’t matter how hard it had been raining or how badly lit the crosswalk was, a reasonable driver would have adjusted to the conditions enough to see Girotto.

“The extent to whether a driver’s view is obstructed when they are guiding what amounts to several tons of steel down a roadway should cause changes to the way those tons of steel are guided,” he said in his verdict in Vancouver provincial court Thursday. “In other words, if a driver’s view of the roadway is obstructed for any reason, that should cause a reasonably prudent driver to take extra precautions.”

St. Pierre said there was no “credible explanation” for Wong not seeing Girotto.

He also said Cheu should have slowed down when he saw Wong’s truck stopped on the street close to the sidewalk.

In a statement to police, however, Cheu had said he had passed the pickup and accelerated toward the overpass before he felt his vehicle hit something.

“It is fair to expect a reasonably prudent driver in that circumstance to slow significantly and not to accelerate around a motorist who has stopped in the travel portion of the road very close to a crosswalk for an unknown reason,” St. Pierre said.

In delivering his verdict, St. Pierre emphasized it wasn’t the court’s role in this case to decide whether the accident could have been avoided if the two men had acted differently or to assign blame for Girotto’s death.

He said the court’s role was to determine there had been “inadvertent negligence” in the case.

He found there had.

  • With files from Cornelia Naylor

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