A $2,000 fine will be the only court-imposed penalty on the man who caused the fatal crash that killed Jason Hargreaves.
Hargreaves’ father and mother, Jim and Nancy, said they found no satisfaction in the fine imposed in Brandon provincial court on Friday.
The fine was delivered after the accused was previously acquitted of a criminal charge.
“They put a price tag on killing somebody,” Jim said of the fine following court.
“To get an illegal parking ticket as the result of the death of someone, that seems kind of minor,” Nancy said.
Gerald Vermette was previously acquitted at trial of criminal negligence causing death, but pleaded guilty to a related Highway Traffic Act charge on Friday.
Hargreaves, 22, of Brandon was killed in the early morning of June 27, 2009. He was driving east when his 1999 Infiniti G20T hit a harrow that Vermette had abandoned on the side of Highway 16.
RCMP were called to the crash site eight kilometres west of Russell around 1 a.m. Hargreaves, a University of Regina business student, had been a popular and talented high school athlete in Brandon and a well-liked coach and referee.
In March, Justice Robert Cummings acquitted Vermette of criminal negligence causing death at the conclusion of his trial.
Cummings outlined the following facts in his written decision.
On the evening of June 26, 2009, Vermette, a farmer, was towing the harrow from Annaheim, Sask., to his home near Morris, but around 8:45 p.m., his truck broke down.
Vermette pulled over as far as he could but the 3.7-metre-wide harrow still extended one-third to halfway through the eastbound travel lane. That left the eastbound passing lane and the single westbound lane clear.
Vermette tried to fix the truck for about 45 minutes, then gave up. As twilight descended, he caught a ride from a passing motorist to a hotel in nearby Russell.
There was no cellphone service where the breakdown happened. Vermette asked the motorist where he could find help to fix or tow his truck, but he was told everything would be closed. He got the same reply when he posed the question to hotel staff, so he went to bed.
Sometime after 11 p.m., Hargreaves’ car hit the harrow and he died at the scene.
Cummings ruled that Vermette was negligent in a number of ways.
He’d left the harrow partially blocking one of the eastbound lanes, failed to turn the truck’s hazard lights on, failed to connect the harrow’s lights to the truck so they’d work — the only warning in the dark would have been reflective markings on the harrow.
Vermette also failed to get help or notify authorities, including police, of the hazard.
That negligence led to the death of Hargreaves, Cummings ruled, but it fell short of “wanton or reckless” disregard for the lives and safety of other people.
And so, Vermette was acquitted of the criminal negligence causing death count under the Criminal Code.
That left a number of related Highway Traffic Act offences lingering in provincial court.
On Friday, Vermette pleaded guilty to one of those counts — illegally parking on a highway — drawing the legal ordeal to a close.
His lawyer, Bruce Bonney, indicated that Vermette was pleading guilty even though there may have been defences to the charge. Bonney didn’t elaborate on the possible defences.
Bonney and Crown attorney Ron Toews then joined to recommend a $1,500 to $2,000 fine. The $2,000 figure is the maximum allowed under the HTA charge.
As he recommended the highest fine possible, Toews listed the steps Vermette could have taken to prevent Hargreaves’ death.
He could have prepared for the trip by buying traffic cones and flares in case of a breakdown, bought a $15 adapter to connect the harrow’s lights to his truck, switched on the truck’s hazard lights and called RCMP or a tow truck once he was in Russell.
“He had the luxury of time and he squandered that luxury time and again,” Toews said.
Toews said that, tragically, a mechanical inspection showed that there was nothing wrong with the engine of Vermette’s truck.
It had automatically shut down due to exhaust temperature — had Vermette remained with the truck and persisted a little longer, it would have started.
Hargreaves’ mother and father, Nancy and Jim, delivered emotional victim impact statements. Nancy described how her son’s death left her “numb” with grief —his grave is visible from the couple’s Brandon Hills home.
“I will never really be back to normal ever again,” Nancy said.
Hargreaves was a gifted athlete who coached and refereed locally, and was loved by his many friends. But even happy memories of her cheery son are painful as they remind her of her loss, Nancy said.
“More tears ran down my face that summer than would be normal in 100 lifetimes,” Jim told court as he shared one of the questions that has haunted him since the crash.
“How could anyone leave a farm implement in the middle of the driving lane on the second busiest east-west highway in Western Canada, with no flashing lights or flares?”
Bonney said his client, a 44-year-old father of six, didn’t expect trouble from his late-model pickup truck and thought he’d be in Russell before dark. The crest of a hill may have made it tough for approaching drivers to see the harrow until they were within 50 to 100 metres. Vermette, however, wouldn’t have realized that.
Bonney also said that farmers are exempt from a requirement to carry traffic cones or flares to warn of broken-down machinery. Perhaps the crash could have been avoided if that weren’t the case, Bonney suggested.
In the end though, Vermette pleaded guilty to the HTA offence because he failed to notify RCMP of the hazard.
As he apologized to the Hargreaves, Vermette said he can understand their pain as his mother was killed in a car accident when he was young.
“I want you to know that your son and your family will be on my mind for the rest of my days,” Vermette said.
Judge Shauna Hewitt-Michta said it “churns my stomach” to have to place a dollar figure on the loss of a life by imposing a fine.
“Your son did nothing wrong and this is unfair,” Hewitt-Michta told Hargreaves’ parents.
Hewitt-Michta agreed that Vermette had the “luxury of time” to take steps to prevent the crash and she imposed the maximum $2,000 fine.
Following court, Toews said that Cummings’ previous Court of Queen’s Bench decision was reviewed by Crown attorneys, but there were no grounds for an appeal.
Jim Hargreaves, a farmer himself, said he would like to see penalties toughened for similar offences. He’d like to see jail imposed, and not fines, for similar offences.
Due to no-fault insurance, the Hargreaves family can’t sue Vermette for their loss.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 15, 2012