Sarbjit Matharu walked into Toronto’s 361 University Avenue courthouse for the first time since his trial began in March, and about an hour later the 40-year-old Winnipeg father-of-two and a long-haul truck driver walked into custody to begin serving his eight-year sentence for killing three generations of one family in a crash on Highway 400 five years ago.
Justice Michael Code, who presided over the sentencing that was held both in-person and through Zoom, told the court the primary principles of sentencing were denunciation and deterrence were weighted in his decision.
Matharu was found guilty of four counts of criminal negligence causing death and a count of negligence causing bodily harm in relation to an 11-vehicle crash on the southbound lanes of Highway 400, near Sheppard Avenue West, on June 24, 2016 that took the lives of Valbona Vokshi, 35, her daughter, Isabela Kuci, and Vokshi’s mother Xhemile Vokshi, 55.
Maria Lipska, 27, was also killed in the crash. Blerta Vokshi was also injured after the collision.
Matharu was driving a tractor-trailer that slammed into the cars being driven by Vokshi and Lipska, causing both vehicles to catch on fire. Vokshi’s sister, who was driving in another car, was also injured.
Code sentenced Matharu to eight years for each of the counts of criminal negligence causing death to be served concurrently and four years for the count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm, also to be served concurrently.
Matharu was also given a 10-year driving ban and has been ordered to submit his DNA. The Crown had suggested a sentence of 10 to 12 years in prison would be appropriate whereas the defence suggested a five-year sentence.
Code reviewed the case and found Matharu had driven for 13 hours, and after no more than two hours sleep he resumed driving for 13-and-a-half hours. He was found to be talking on a hands-free cellphone at the time of the crash.
Despite the fact the slowing traffic was visible from a distance, Matharu did not slow down and gradually come to a stop. Instead, he briefly accelerated to 90 km/hour in an 80 km/h construction zone before briefly braking for three seconds before colliding with three cars in front of him. Those three cars then collided with a stationary tractor-trailer in backed-up traffic.
Code said Matharu’s fault included driving on insufficient sleep, falsifying his driving log to cover up his lack of sleep, driving while distracted, driving in excess of the reduced speed limit in a construction zone and a highly congested stretch of traffic, and failing to brake and gradually slow his large tractor-trailer down when traffic ahead was obviously slowing.
“A reasonable commercial truck driver would never have taken these risks. The only explanation: he was falling asleep and distracted by his cellphone or deliberately took the risk because his delivery was later and because he thought he could make a late lane change and avoid traffic,” he told the court, remarking that many were harmed by the collision and that the degree of harm was extraordinary.
Code acknowledged Matharu’s testimony in which he largely blamed his employer, Rainbow Transport, and its owner for allegedly pressuring him to drive on insufficient sleep. Matharu testified that he refused to drive an overweight load the week earlier and as a result, was not offered a job for a week.
“In my view, Mr. Matharu’s strong work ethic made him susceptible to his employer’s pressure to take the job, but there were choices he could make. He could have stood up to his employer as he had done before. He could have always worked and could have found other lawful employment where he was not subjected to pressure,” Code said with respect to that testimony.
He went on to say police tried to speak to the owner of Rainbow Transport in Winnipeg before the sentencing hearing, but the owner had declined to speak to officers.
Among the aggravating circumstances were the fact that Matharu as a trained and licensed commercial truck driver, driving a large heavy tractor-trailer was capable of causing extraordinary amount of harm in a collision and a higher standard of care was expected.
Code also found that Matharu had a not insignificant driving record and falsified his logbook records in order to avoid being caught and ticketed for driving on insufficient sleep.
With respect to the mitigating circumstances, Code found Matharu has no prior criminal record and that he has always worked to support his family and his pro-social background inferred he has a rehabilitative potential, has shown some remorse, and that there is the potential that he could be deported, which will impact his wife and two young children.
Before Matharu left the courtroom to begin serving his sentence, Code told him to try to make the best of his time in prison — calling it a harsh environment.
“See if you can get a job. You’re a hardworking guy. It will give you greater freedom in your cell and start working toward your release on parole. Take some language courses, see if you can upgrade your English, because when you’re released on parole, you’re going to be facing immigration consequences,” he said.
“If you can show you make good use of your time in jail to improve yourself, that will impress immigration authorities because the immigration authorities have got discretion. They do not have to deport you.”
In a written statement to Global News after the verdict, Blerta said she continues to suffer “emotionally, physically and psychologically” after the crash.
“Four innocent people lost their lives and one was a child only five years old with so many plans and aspirations for the future that was stolen from them,” she said.
“I would like to express my appreciation for the court and I hope the sentence will bring me some relief and serve the justice system in order to prevent future tragedies like the one my family and I have endured in the last five years.”