Sentence is almost always custodial, judge says
A Grand Court jury on Friday found Veramae Patricia Watson guilty of causing death by reckless driving, having regard to the condition of her vehicle. Justice Alexander Henderson adjourned sentencing until Friday, 8 July.
Watson was driving a Jeep with an attached trailer on the afternoon of 21 September 2007 when the trailer became detached in an area of Breakers near Caribbean Haven. The trailer went across the lane of oncoming traffic and a bus driven by Edwin Edwards collided with it. The bus then collided with a tree. Mr. Edwards died about 10 days later from injuries received.
In his instructions to jurors before they began their deliberations, Justice Henderson said they had to accept as a matter of law that the way in which a trailer is attached to the vehicle towing it may amount to a defect if the attachment is done improperly.
Accident reconstructionist Colin Redden showed the jury components of two basic systems of connecting a trailer to a motor vehicle. The two systems cannot be mixed, he said. A donut ring fits with a hook that locks closed; a ball hitch fits with a coupler that fits over it and locks a collar under it.
In this case, the Jeep had a ball hitch and the trailer had a donut ring receiver. Mr. Redden said they were not compatible. Further, the ball hitch was one and seven-eighths inches in diameter, while the hole in the donut ring was four and a half inches. There was nothing to restrain the donut ring from coming off the ball, he said. He agreed there were straps tied around the hitch, but they were broken.
Watson’s evidence was that she had pulled the trailer on a previous occasion and had secured it with rope. On the day of the incident she bought two rubber straps with steel hooks. She said she hooked one of the straps into the eye on the hitch bar and then wrapped it around the back of the ring. Then she took it across and placed the other hook in the other eye. She attached the second strap similarly, so that one strap was under the hitch bar and one was on top.
She noted that the package the straps came in said they were ideal for a tie down for boat, auto or home. She thought they would be ideal.
Watson told the court she loaded some rocks in the front end of the trailer. She said she stopped on her way from the Queen’s Highway and examined the trailer to make sure it was safe before she continued onto Frank Sound Road and then the main road into George Town.
Defence witness Baron Philipson, also an accident reconstructionist, told the court he had tested the tensile strength of two rubber straps described by the defendant as identical to the straps she had used. Mr. Philipson showed a video of the strap being used to life a dead weight. When the amount of force equals 698 pounds, the strap breaks. The second strap tested broke at 526 pounds.
In his summing up, Justice Henderson pointed out that it was not known how many pounds of force the trailer was exerting when it was being towed.
He said it was up to the jury to decide whether the incompatibility of the ball hitch and donut receiver was a defect in the condition of the vehicle and the defect was not cured by using the two straps.
The case for the prosecution, conducted by Crown Counsel Kenneth Ferguson, was that attaching the trailer this way was dangerous. If jurors found it was dangerous, they had to consider the driver’s state of mind. Watson gave evidence that she was never aware that the way she attached the trailer presented a danger to the public.
The judge said jurors had to ask themselves – Was the dangerous condition of the Jeep something that would have been obvious to a competent and careful driver?
If they thought it was not obvious, or if they were unsure, they had to find her not guilty of dangerous driving and go on to consider reckless driving.
First they had to consider whether the manner of attaching the trailer to the Jeep created an obvious and serious risk of injury to some other road user. If it did, they had to decide whether Watson drove without giving any thought to the possibility of such a risk or recognised a risk, but went on to take the risk.
After the verdict, Defence Attorney Clyde Allen asked for time to prepare mitigation before sentencing, with bail for his client until then. He asked for the judge’s thoughts on a likely sentence.
“In these sorts of cases it’s almost always a custodial sentence. That’s my thought,” Justice Henderson replied.