B.C. pub company partially at fault for drunk-driving crash, judge rules

The company that owns a downtown Vancouver pub has been assigned partial fault for a drunk-driving accident that left a pedestrian with brain damage in what a lawyer calls a "precedent-setting case."

On Wednesday, a B.C. Supreme Court judge found that the company that owns and operates the Cambie Bar & Grill neglected its duty to prevent Bradley Rockwell, 51, from becoming intoxicated to the point where he could not safely operate his vehicle in 2012.

Justice Nigel Kent ruled that Rockwell is only 75 per cent at fault for the crash, while Cambie Malone's — the company that owns and operates the pub — is 25 per cent liable.

Damages in the case have yet to be decided.

'Falling-down drunk'

According to the summary trial judgement, Stuart Widdowson was walking home from work in Port Moody on Feb. 17, 2012 when he was hit by a truck driven by Rockwell around 5 p.m. PT.

Experts said Rockwell had a blood alcohol level of around .334 at the time — four times the legal limit — when he lost control of the vehicle, the ruling reads.

"[The driver] was, quite literally, falling-down drunk," a trial judge wrote in his ruling.

Rockwell was later convicted of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing bodily harm and sentenced to nine months in prison.

The crash

According to the judgement, Rockwell had gone to the Cambie Bar & Grill bar for drinks with colleagues that afternoon. He left the pub after a few hours to drive his co-worker, Kevin Sahanovitch, back to his home in Port Moody. Sahanovitch was supposed to be picked up by his mother once they arrived.

The pair continued drinking at Rockwell's house, according to the documents.

Sahanovitch's mom then told the men she wouldn't be able to pick her son up after all, so Rockwell decided to drive Sahanovitch home himself, according to the trial ruling.

On the way there, the driver lost control turning onto Guildford Way, jumped the curb and hit Widdowson. The crash left the pedestrian with severe injuries and brain damage. 

An RCMP officer who arrested Rockwell at the scene said he was belligerent and "clearly intoxicated," according to court documents.

The Mountie said that, when advised about his right to a lawyer, the driver requested to talk to Ozzie Osbourne and "started to play air guitar."

Duty of care

A trial to settle for damages was scheduled for Jan. 8, 2018 — however, Cambie Malone's filed for a quicker summary trial to contest its liability.

Guiseppe Battista, Widdowson's lawyer, said the company believed it wasn't at fault for the accident because Rockwell had stopped at home between leaving the pub and causing the crash.

"We counter-claimed to find them liable," Battista explained.

"In B.C., you owe a duty to patrons not to over serve. If you do, you owe them a duty of care," Battista explained. "After the duty of care arose, they needed to ensure [Rockwell] didn't harm himself and they didn't follow their own rules [to do so.]"

The pub's  in-house rules say that "intoxicated persons must not be permitted to drive" and that it is a staffer's "duty to ensure that a safe ride home is used."

Justice Kent said staff "utterly failed" to follow those rules and, consequently, found them partially liable — regardless of Rockwell's stop at home.

"It would be artificial in the extreme to say that Rockwell's intoxication, which was caused at least in part by the excessive consumption of alcohol at the pub, was not a cause of the subsequent accident simply because he spent a few minutes at home before again venturing onto the road," the judge wrote.

Precedence

Battista said host liability cases are "becoming more and more common."

In 2005, two bars in Whistler were each deemed to be 15 per cent at fault for a drunk-driving crash that left one passenger paralyzed. 

That same year, a Steveston hotel was found 50 per cent liable for the actions of a drunk patron who drove into a crowd of people, seriously injuring five of them.

However, he said this week's case is unusual because a third party — neither the business or the patron — was involved.

"More often, the person who's over-served harms themselves by, say, driving off the road or falling down the stairs," the lawyer said. "In this case, it was an innocent third party."

CBC News has reached out to lawyers for Cambie Malone's to determine if the company plans to appeal the ruling. The trial to settle damages is still set for January.