Ottawa bus driver acquitted of all charges in fatal Westboro crash

·7 min read
Aissatou Diallo walks to the Ottawa courthouse on Sept. 22, 2021. The 44-year-old OC Transpo driver was acquitted Wednesday on all 38 charges laid against her after a 2019 bus crash at Westboro station that killed three people and injured dozens more.                     (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)
Aissatou Diallo walks to the Ottawa courthouse on Sept. 22, 2021. The 44-year-old OC Transpo driver was acquitted Wednesday on all 38 charges laid against her after a 2019 bus crash at Westboro station that killed three people and injured dozens more. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)

The Ottawa bus driver in a 2019 fatal crash at the Westboro transit station has been acquitted of all criminal charges.

In a decision delivered Wednesday, Ontario Court Justice Matthew Webber acknowledged the "pure magnitude of human suffering" that gripped the city in the aftermath of the Jan. 11, 2019, crash.

OC Transpo bus operator Aissatou Diallo was driving bus 8155 when she crashed into the steel awning of the Westboro transit station, killing three passengers — Anja Van Beek, Judy Booth and Bruce Thomlinson — and injuring dozens of others.

Police charged Diallo with three counts of dangerous driving causing death and 35 counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm.

"This is a tragic, tragic case indeed. And the degree of human pain and loss that was suffered by so many has not eluded me. However, to convict Ms. Diallo of this serious criminal offence on the strength of the proven conduct before me would be to cast the net far too wide," Webber said.

"Ms. Diallo, you are free to go."

Judge found driver intended to merge but was led astray

Diallo intentionally merged from the left lane into the right service lane seconds before she drove off the road, Webber found, acquiescing to a passenger's stop request.

Though her speed "was a little excessive" as she travelled roughly 70 kilometres per hour, when the posted speed limit on the Ottawa Transitway is 50 kilometres per hour, the judge said it was comparable to that of a colleague driving behind her.

The "oppressive" sun setting in front of her was "obviously a hazard," while an "errant" and misleading road marking led her directly into a snow-filled gutter, contributing to the crash, Webber said.

"In all likelihood, she was influenced by the road marking to move too far to the right … Diallo followed and into the open gutter she went," he said, adding the incorrect road marking was likely enhanced by the sun's rays.

"I have found that if a bus was to follow that painted line … the bus would likely end up in the open gutter full of ice and snow at the time."

Ottawa Police Service
Ottawa Police Service

3 collisions just before fatal crash

Once the bus was off the road, there were three separate but sequential collisions, all of which happened in a matter of seconds before the bus crashed into the station's steel canopy.

The bus first collided with a snowbank within one second of leaving the road, which Webber said would have been jolting and the bus windshield was covered with snow as a result.

The bus then collided with the rock-faced wall through which the Transitway had been dug, blowing debris through the front door of the bus and into the vehicle.

One second later, the bus struck another snowbank — its third collision before hitting the awning, and the bus rocked back and forth during all of it.

"The limitations of human perception and reaction times would have made it next to impossible for Ms. Diallo to meaningfully respond to the crisis she found herself and her passengers in, given the rapidness of the sequential collisions that occurred," Webber said.

"Within approximately two seconds of hitting the second snow bank, bus 8155 collided with the canopy of Westboro station."

Trial Exhibit/Ontario Court of Justice
Trial Exhibit/Ontario Court of Justice

Up until the point of the first collision, Webber found Diallo's driving had been "flawless."

Webber told the court Diallo's manner of driving merited scrutiny — not the fatal consequences of the crash — and it would need to be a "marked departure" from the standard of care that a reasonable person would show.

"Once the bus was in the gutter and subjected to the barrage of consecutive collisions, she may well have done nothing but the realities of human perception and reaction times … [would have rendered] her unable to do so," he said.

"These events happened in a matter of seconds."

Diallo failed to keep the bus on the paved surface, he said, but the "genesis of that act" was her own attempt "to comply with what appeared to be a legitimate road marker."

WATCH | Defence lawyer Solomon Friedman on bus driver's acquittal:

Diallo in 'awful position'

During the trial earlier this year, the Crown and defence presented arguments based on video taken by OC Transpo cameras at the Westboro station, on-board video from the bus and data recordings from the transit agency's computer systems. Witness testimony included passengers on the double-decker bus and OC Transpo trainers and maintenance staff.

Assistant Crown attorneys Dallas Mack and Louise Tansey argued Diallo's training as a professional driver meant she had a higher duty of care and the double-decker bus was in excellent working condition on the day of the collision.

Defence lawyers Fady Mansour and Solomon Friedman argued there were several mitigating factors that helped explain why the bus left the roadway, and why Diallo couldn't regain control.

Outside of court Wednesday, Friedman told reporters the judge's decision confirmed his client's innocence.

"She was put in an awful position by circumstances that were well beyond her control. She did her very best and tragically, unfortunately, her very best was not good enough," Friedman said.

He also acknowledged "the immense pain and suffering experienced by all those on that bus, the family members of those who lost their lives."

Friedman called the case a "wake-up call" for OC Transpo and the level of training the city's transit operator offers to drivers.

"This is a case where charges never should have been laid," he said, adding nearly three years of facing criminal prosecution caused "tremendous stress, trauma and anxiety" for Diallo.

"What she is doing now is thinking about what happened and taking the steps to move forward with her life."

Raphael Tremblay/CBC
Raphael Tremblay/CBC

'No one is being held responsible'

Mayor Jim Watson told reporters Wednesday he supports the process that led to this final legal decision, while acknowledging how difficult the verdict would be for some members of the community.

"We may not like the decision, but we have to support it. This has obviously been stressful for the driver herself, as you can well imagine. But as I said, our first thoughts, of course, are with the family and friends of the three individuals who lost their lives on that tragic day in Westboro," Watson said

The outgoing head of OC Transpo, John Manconi, said the driver-training system does have "checks and balances" and the city recently acted on recommendations from an audit of the training program, which also addressed road markings at transit stations.

Family members of victims Judy Booth and Bruce Thomlinson attended Wednesday's decision at the Ottawa courthouse and declined to comment at the time. On Thursday, Thomlinson's widow Elaine responded to CBC via email.

"This is a huge miscarriage of justice based on the evidence that was presented in court," she said.

Booth's daughter, Karen Benvie, later told CBC News she was devastated to hear the words "not guilty."

"The actions and inactions of a person left three people dead and 35 severely injured. That person walked away from this, her life still intact. She gets to go home to her family. She gets to have a normal life and a job. But not us. We're left to pick up the pieces," she said.

"No one is being held responsible for what happened. Not the city, not OC Transpo, and now not even the driver. How can someone who caused so much devastation not be held accountable? I believe the courts failed us today."

A pandemic trial also meant Diallo was never face-to-face with the families of the victims.

"I hope she remembers their names and their faces and that she never forgets that she failed them."

The City of Ottawa has accepted civil liability for the collision and paid out $5 million to victims' families two years after the crash.

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