Veronica Howell is finally starting to feel hopeful about the future, more than three years after her life was changed forever by a hit and run driver.
A B.C. Supreme Court judge has awarded Howell a precedent-setting $100,000 in punitive damages — part of a roughly $3-million ruling — for recklessness and lying to the court.
The punitive damages award is the largest ever in Canadian legal history.
For Howell, the historic ruling brings some comfort, but she says it’s still not enough punishment for the man who nearly killed her.
“In terms of justice being served, I wish the driver could have been prosecuted a little bit more,” Howell said.
“It’s not jail time… but I want him to know for the rest of his life that he can’t get away with these things.”
‘Simple life’ dashed
On Jan. 20, 2014, Howell was crossing East 1st Avenue west of Commercial Drive when Leon Machi swerved his pickup truck around eastbound rush hour traffic by going into the clear westbound lane.
Machi struck Howell and kept driving, leaving the then-22-year-old lying unconscious in the road with a serious head injury that has affected her life ever since.
The accident dashed Howell’s plans to graduate from her English literature studies at UBC and move into a job in a library.
She has also suffered from chronic pain, cognitive issues and other health problems since the incident.
“Everything I had, everything I had worked for was taken away from me,” Howell said.
“I had to leave school, I couldn’t work. I had a very simple and happy life planned out for myself. I just wanted to be a student and work towards being a librarian.
“Everything about myself was gone, I thought,” she continued. “But this ruling gave me hope again.”
Driver denied being involved
Justice Heather MacNaughton awarded Howell $275,000 in general damages, $14,000 in lost income, $1,775,000 for loss of future income and special damages of $14,781.77.
But the $100,000 in punitive damages is what makes the ruling unique.
Such damages — which are meant to directly punish the defendant and reflect the community’s condemnation — have never before been awarded in a hit and run case, according to the ruling, and rarely ever in any kind of reckless driving case.
“It sends a very clear message that this type of recklessness on our roads is unacceptable,” Howell’s lawyer John Rice said.
MacNaughton wrote that such damages were necessary in this case, as Machi has a long record of ignoring driving laws, and has also repeatedly denied being the driver in this case.
The justice noted that Machi had been prohibited from driving five times. He had three prior convictions for driving while prohibited.
Machi, who operated a small construction company, represented himself during the trial but only attended three out of the 15 days of proceedings.
WATCH: Back in 2013, many were asking what could be done about the number of hit and run incidents in B.C.
ICBC will cover some of the damages except for the punitive award, which will be Machi’s sole responsibility. He will also be responsible for whatever ICBC can’t cover of the remaining damages.
But Machi has since filed for bankruptcy and moved to Ontario.
Rich said that won’t stop his office’s efforts to make sure Machi pays every cent.
“I can tell you, on Ms. Howell’s behalf, that we will pursue every available collection remedy to recover those damages from the defendant, but that’s going to take a long time,” Rice said.
Proving her life’s value
Howell hopes to return to school one day as she works toward becoming “the person I once was.” But she said she would have to reapply to UBC as a returning student.
She did try to return to her studies by taking a single course recently, but she said she wasn’t ready and ended up failing, which could impact any future application.
Despite that roadblock, Howell said she won’t let anything else stand in the way of the life she wants, and she hopes that rulings like this one give similar hope to other hit and run victims.
“Nobody deserves to be left behind like that…and I hope that it shows future victims that there is hope.”
WATCH: Another harsh sentence was dealt in August to a hit-and-run driver who killed a man in Surrey four years ago. Geoff Hastings reports.