On the night of June 24, 2016, when 35-year-old Sarbjit Singh Matharu of Winnipeg slammed his 2011 Volvo tractor trailer into a car in front of him, triggering an 11-vehicle collision on Highway 400 southbound which claimed the lives of four people, Matharu asked the officer who attended to him if anyone was dead.
Twenty-seven-year-old Maria Lipska, a Seneca College student in travel and tourism, was killed.
Five-year-old Isabela Kuci, her mother, 35-year-old Valbona Vokshi, and Kuci’s grandmother, 55-year-old Xhemile Vokshi, were also killed.
Valbona’s sister Blerta Vokshi, who was travelling in another car with Kuci’s two-year-old brother, was also injured. The family was coming home after spending the day at Canada’s Wonderland.
Sgt. Colin Style, the traffic sergeant in charge of the OPP Collision Reconstruction Team who responded to the crash, testified at day one of the judge-alone trial being held on video via Zoom that when he arrived, it was a chaotic scene.
Explaining his initial concern was identifying who was who and who was a witness, Style said he saw a tractor trailer in the right ditch of the southbound lanes of Highway 400 south of Sheppard Avenue, about 500 metres from where a number of cars had burst into flames after colliding with another tractor trailer.
“He came down out of the truck. He physically looked very upset, looked like he was suffering from shock. His face looked empty,” said Style.
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The officer said he asked the truck driver to come with him to get checked out by paramedics and advised him not to look at the wreckage.
Matharu stopped as he got closer and asked Style if anyone was dead.
Style testified, “I replied to him, ‘Why would you ask me that? He responded to me, ‘Please tell me.’ I said to him, ‘There are casualties, yes people are dead.’ He uttered, ‘Oh god, I’m scared.’ Then I said to him, ‘What are you scared of?’ He replied with, ‘What has happened?'”
Matharu was charged with four counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm less than three months later and as part of his bail conditions, was forbidden from leaving Manitoba and Ontario and banned from driving. Matharu has pleaded not guilty.
In her opening address, Crown attorney Katalin Kirec told Justice Michael Code that traffic was backed up on Highway 400 southbound primarily in lane three approaching the split of the six lanes onto Highway 401 and Black Creek Drive, due to ongoing construction.
She said brake lights were clearly visible as vehicles were slowing down in a controlled way and then a 2011 Volvo tractor trailer hit them going at a speed approximately up to 90 km/h.
“Mr. Matharu was the driver. There were no mechanical issues with his vehicle,” said Kirec.
“There were no ambient or outside issues, nothing else was happening on the highway. The weather was clear and dry. There was no reason for him to not have slowed down his tractor trailer way in advance, nor for him to have struck a motor vehicle that was almost or fully stopped.”
Kirec also told the court that cellphone records and other evidence gives prosecutors the route that Matharu took and it’s not what’s in his log book which was seized at the scene.
“The log has him leaving Winnipeg at 7:30 a.m. on June 23, 2016. His target destination was Hannon, Ont., and his log indicated he slept for 11 hours in the middle of that drive which would take upwards of 21 hours.
“However, evidence indicates that he didn’t leave Winnipeg until 4:30 p.m. that day despite what he put in his log and that his amount of time that he could have had to sleep was less and perhaps well less than three hours, in the middle of this 28 hour drive,” Kirin explained that it’s not in accordance with what provincial laws require with respect to professional drivers and rest periods.
Motorist Rachel Willard, who was driving southbound that night on Highway 400 after spending the day at Canada’s Wonderland, testified that she didn’t see brake lights on the tractor trailer before the collision, which she said caused an explosion.
“As he was about to hit the car, you could see the smoke coming off his back tires and lights go on,” said Willard who remembered she had three teenagers in the car who were terrified and were screaming “get us out of here.”
Ministry of Transportation traffic camera video was also played, which showed a number of bystanders who tried to extinguish the fire caused by three cars that crashed into the back of a tractor trailer filled with furniture products; at least two cars burst into flames.
Style testified the highway was closed for almost 20 hours because the road melted in the fire so it had to be repaved.
The trial is expected to last two weeks.