Delays and botched paperwork: How a party bus death prosecution fell apart
A form that wasn’t filled out right and months-long delays in processing it mean the operator of a party bus ride that ended in the death of a young woman won’t pay a fine in the case, a CTV News investigation has found.
Vancouver police admitted an officer didn’t fill out the $311 ticket correctly – and other officers didn’t catch the mistake. Then, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, which processes tickets, cancelled it – but only after months had gone by.
No criminal charges had been filed, no new ticket was written and a year after 23-year-old Chelsea James was killed, the deadline for filing anything else had passed. The company, Silver Lady Limousines, no longer has to face punishment from this process, but her family is devastated.
“Chelsea was a beautiful spirit. She loved life, she loved her job with kids. She was a huge piece of our family,” said her mother, Shelly James.
“To be honest with you, a piece of us has gone. We’re trying to do what we can do, but we’re forever changed. It’s hard. It’s been really hard.”
James, a schoolteacher, was killed in January 2016 when the party bus she was in turned a corner in downtown Vancouver. She was at the front of the bus, fell against the door, which opened and she tumbled onto the street where she was run over and killed.
A nine-month investigation by the Vancouver Police Department discovered that the door had not been installed properly, with a malfunctioning locking mechanism and an air pressure regulator that was installed backwards. Officers found the door alternated between between being very difficult to open and very easy.
“The investigation found a baby could have pushed it open while in transit,” Shelly told CTV News.
Officers considered criminal charges, but ran up against a curious history of the bus: provincial inspections had already found problems with the door in 2013 and 2014, and ordered repairs. The company had completed the repairs.
That meant that, even if the door had apparently not been fixed, the company demonstrated it had been diligent in following the orders from regulators – which meant officers had an uphill battle to make a criminal negligence charge stick.
“That’s the obvious defense. If you’re seeking out to do the right thing, are you negligent? Very hard to make that case,” said Vancouver lawyer Paul Doroshenko.
That left officers with a ticket under the Motor Vehicle Act. The VPD issued one to Silver Lady Limousines for “Operating an Unsafe Vehicle.” The value of the ticket: $311.
An officer asked the owner to sign the ticket, which is how most tickets are issued. That was on October 13, 2016.
But there was a problem. This ticket was to the company, not to the owner directly, so there were other requirements. The officer had to correctly identify the company as the target of the ticket. He also had to fill out the certificate of service.
The ticket was received by ICBC on Oct. 26, 2016. ICBC staff noticed the problems, but didn’t cancel it until Dec. 16, 2016 – almost two months later.
And by the time the VPD officer received notice of the cancellation, it was after Jan. 9, 2017, the VPD said. That meant the one-year time limit on writing tickets had elapsed.
No new ticket could be written, said VPD spokesperson Sgt. Jason Robillard. He said the whole event has been a learning issue that for these types of tickets, the signature and a form is required.
“In my 18 years of service, I’d never heard of that. This is something new not just for me, but other officers that we had to fill out both,” he said.
“I would call this a technicality, an administrative process error. The officer that wrote this ticket is very thorough.”
Doroshenko had a blunter assessment.
“It looks like they screwed up on the paperwork,” he said.
Also complicating matters was that no agency involved would share anything what happened, pointing to each other, giving the grieving mom a runaround that even angered B.C.’s premier.
ICBC claimed that it could not discuss the ticket in order to protect the privacy of Silver Lady Limousines, even though companies don’t have privacy rights. After a freedom of information request by CTV News, the agency released the documents.
About two months later, ICBC apologized to CTV News for claiming it could not respond because of privacy rules, when that wasn’t true.
Silver Lady hasn’t responded to CTV News inquiries. However, it did write a response to a Better Business Bureau complaint, saying the case was “a tragic accident” and that “we follow a very strict six-month safety and maintenance program that was designed by the government.”
The company said its repair shop was never fined for doing anything wrong.
“We understand that Ms. James wants someone to answer for her daughter’s death, but wrongfully blaming the company’s maintenance program is not right nor is it fair,” the company wrote to the BBB.
The driver of the bus has paid a $230 fine for having open alcohol in a vehicle. Family members told CTV News he was broken up about the death.
The whole ordeal has been tremendously trying for James’s family, who is hoping that someone will yet be held accountable for her death.
“If the inspections had been done properly, my daughter would be here today. It was so avoidable,” Shelly said.
She said she wondered how many young people were put at risk with a malfunctioning door, adding that B.C.’s Minister of Transportation phoned her last week to update her on the case.
The Transportation Ministry has told CTV News the ministry’s Passenger Transportation Branch would now try to prosecute the case a third way: a $1,000 fine.
James said she’s not convinced this new prosecution will work either – and worries that the bus has been sold and returned to the road.
“The bus is out there,” she said. “And still nobody has been held accountable for it.”