No attempt to steer clear of island before fatal ferry sinking, B.C. trial hears

VANCOUVER – The crew member piloting the Queen of the North passenger ferry the night it sank seven years ago failed to take any evasive action to avoid the island that brought the ship down, a Crown lawyer told the opening of his trial Thursday.

Karl Lilgert is charged with criminal negligence causing the deaths of Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, who were killed after the Queen of the North ran aground and sank in the early hours of March 22, 2006.

The ship hit Gil Island off the northwestern coast of B.C., several hours after leaving the northern community of Prince Rupert en route to Port Hardy, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

Crown lawyer Robert Wright told the jury in his opening statement that Lilgert was on the bridge with another crew member, his former girlfriend, when the Queen of the North missed a crucial turn shortly after midnight.

The ship travelled off-course in a straight line for more than 20 minutes before hitting Gil Island, said Wright.

“Prior to the striking (of Gil Island), the evidence will show no course changes, no evasive manoeuvres, no evasive action was taken by the bridge,” Wright told the jury.

“It’s the theory of the Crown that this accused’s negligence caused this sinking, and he thereby caused the deaths of Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette.”

Wright said the evidence will show a “complete failure” of Lilgert to perform his duties to navigate the ship, maintain proper course and keep a lookout of any dangers ahead.

Another crew member who ran up to the bridge after the collision will testify that he saw the throttle pushed forward, indicating there was no attempt to slow the ship down, said Wright.

Lilgert’s defence lawyer, Glen Orris, told the jury his client was a professional, trained mariner who was faced with difficult circumstances that night. The navigation equipment on board the vessel was inadequate, as were the policies of BC Ferries, the former Crown corporation that runs the province’s ferry service.

Orris also said experts in marine safety will testify that Lilgert, a deckhand whose primary roles included directing vehicles on and off the ferry, should have had more help on the bridge.

“We say that those shortcomings are what led to the sinking of the Queen of the North,” Orris said in his opening statement.

The Crown’s opening detailed an intimate affair that had recently ended between Lilget and Karen Bricker, the other crew member on the bridge the night the ferry sank.

Bricker is expected to testify that she and Lilgert were in love and had discussed having children, but several weeks later the affair ended. Bricker had decided to stay with her husband and by a home with him. Their time on the bridge marked their first time working together, said the Crown.

But Orris told the jury the pair’s failed affair had nothing to do with the sinking.

“The relationship with Ms. Bricker, that’s been a big deal I guess as far as the media is concerned,” said Orris.

“It had nothing to do with this. … There is nothing of significance in this case to deal with that. It was over, it was done.”

Instead, Orris said Bricker will testify she didn’t notice anything amiss with how Lilgert was piloting the ship. She will also testify that she was nervous about being assigned to the position of helmsman, because she had only recently returned from a significant period off work, said Orris.

As the trial began, Judge Sunni Stromberg-Stein told the jury that for Lilgert to be found guilty of criminal negligence, they must conclude his actions were a “marked and substantial departure” from what a reasonable person would do in the circumstances, and that a reasonable person would think his actions would cause harm.

Lilgert was charged in March 2010, four years after the sinking, and has pleaded not guilty.

The trial is expected to last up to six months. The expected length prompted the judge to take the unusual step of appointing 14 jurors instead of 12 to ensure any elimination of jurors does not result in a mistrial.

It is the first time a trial in B.C. has used additional jurors since federal legislation passed in 2011 allowing up to 14 to be selected.

At the start of deliberations, if there are still more than 12 remaining, the additional jurors will be eliminated at random.

The sinking also triggered a class-action lawsuit, which BC Ferries settled in 2010 for $354,000, and was split between several dozen passengers and their lawyers.