Teen driver in Sunderland crash that killed her friend, injured five others, acquitted


Published June 2, 2023 at 4:30 pm

The young woman who was behind the wheel during a car crash that killed one of her friends and injured five others in Suderland has been acquitted of dangerous driving causing death.

The driver’s identity is protected given her youth at the time of the crash. Court documents refer to her only as JS. The names of the passengers have also been withheld.

The case, described as “every parent’s nightmare” in Justice Susan Magotiaux’s decision, began with a party on October 21, 2021. JS was the designated sober driver that night ferrying herself and her friends to a house party in her 2006 Chevrolet Sierra pick-up truck.

“They were drinking, but not excessively, ” Magotiaux wrote, “They went to a party but left together when told to do so by the homeowner. They planned for a sober driver. They looked out for each other. They were singing and enjoying a night in the company of good friends.”

After leaving, the teens filled the truck. Four sat in the back, three up front. There were only six seatbelts but the teens largely did not strap themselves in. However, as the truck crested a hill on Sideline Rd. 18, a twisty, bumpy gravel route, passenger TS put on his seatbelt and told JS to slow down. TS was sitting in the front passenger seat. The other teens were mostly on their phones. Two, GM and MO, testified they felt they were going a bit fast, but did not feel scared.

Then “tragedy struck,” per Magotiaux. JS lost control of the Sierra on the final hill of Sideline 18. She hit the brakes but the car slid along the gravel road. The Sierra began to fishtail, first one way then the other. The truck then twisted, went off the road and into the embankment. It began to roll over several times and ejected six of the seven teens.

Several young people were enjoying a bonfire nearby when they heard the crash. They called 911 and rushed to aid the teens. First responders soon followed and extracted TS from the truck. They rushed five of the teens to hospital, but the sixth, BM, died of head trauma on scene.

The conditions of those in the hospital ranged from stable to critical. However, there is no evidence of the condition of JS after the crash. The truck was upright but completely totalled. One of the wheel assemblies was separated from the truck, all but one window had been blown out and all three still-attached tires had deflated. There was a “severe deformation” on the top, indicating impact with the road, and the bumper was completely smashed. The airbags did not deploy.

Investigators concluded the many modifications to the truck, such as a lift-kit and non-standard tires, would have led to a failed safety test. This customization made it easy for the truck to roll over and prevented the speedometer from accurately measuring the speed. Additionally, one of the brakes was leaking fluid which would have slowed the truck’s ability to stop.

A collision reconstructionist, Durham police Det. Cst. Anthony Limb, arrived on the scene around 3 a.m. He spent the next four and a half hours collecting evidence from the roadway. He also collected evidence and data from the truck itself over the following days.

This evendence led Limb to conclude “the truck lost control while travelling down a steep slope at a very high rate of speed [around 150 km/h in an 80 zone]. It then travelled off the road through a small ditch and hit an embankment, where it started rotating back across the road, causing gravel to fan out. The truck then ‘tripped,’ with the front driver’s side digging into the ground” and rolled until it came to rest.

Noting the likely speed of the truck, Magotiaux felt JS was travelling too quickly for the circumstances. However, while speeding alone can be considered dangerous driving, Magotiaux felt the Crown Presecutor had not proven that in this case. “Nor can I find other driving conduct that could be assessed as dangerous given the lack of certainty of what happened in the truck prior to the rollover.”

“The lack of clear evidence of what happened at the top of the hill and leading up to the final resting spot leaves me with a reasonable doubt about whether JS’s conduct meets the required degree of dangerousness,” she concluded. While not required for a conviction, Magotiaux noted “There is no evidence [JS] deliberately engaged in risky behavior, for example trying to scare passengers, or show off, or race.”

She continued, “I can conclude that JS was careless and ought to have driven more slowly in those conditions, using proper safety features. She and her passengers and their families have paid terribly for that lapse. However, given the uncertainty of what she did and what risks the road and truck itself posed, I cannot find beyond a reasonable doubt that her conduct was a marked departure from the standard.”

“There is no satisfaction in this decision,” Magotiaux concluded. “Nobody wins. There is only tragic loss all around.”

INdurham's Editorial Standards and Policies advertising