Nine years after an Ottawa police officer died in a head-on crash with a van on a quiet rural road, collision reconstruction experts still cannot agree on what caused the tragic accident.
Competing theories about what led to the collision have been presented as part of a trio of lawsuits that followed the accident on Nov. 17, 2013.
It was an overcast Sunday afternoon.
Const. Michael Robillard, 32, was on his way into the city to begin his 4 p.m. shift with the police service, which he had joined in 2009 after several years as an officer in Cornwall.
Robillard lived in Metcalfe with his wife, Alyson, and young son, Benjamin, and had travelled Eighth Line Road countless times. Robillard was driving north in a 2010 Honda Civic.
Driving south in a 2003 Dodge Caravan was Brandi Edwards-Turner, a lab technician and mother of three, with her seven-year-old daughter, Hailey, asleep in the backseat. They were returning home from a trip that included a hockey game and some shopping.
The road was wet.
There were no witnesses to the violent, head-on collision between the two vehicles, which occurred in Robillard’s northbound lane, just beyond the crest of a hill near Parkway Road.
One driver, Gary Chouinard, had been following the van on Eighth Line Road, but did not see the collision. He told police he did not notice anything unusual about Edwards-Turner’s driving prior to the crash.
The first person on scene, Chouinard called 911 at 3:33 p.m.
Ottawa firefighters had to cut Edwards-Turner from her van since her legs were pinned. Both mother and daughter were taken to hospital with serious injuries, which left Edwards-Turner with no recollection of the accident.
Robillard was pronounced dead on scene.
Edwards-Turner was charged and later convicted under the Highway Traffic Act with failing to drive in a marked lane.
But subsequent collision reconstruction reports raised questions about why Edwards-Turner left her southbound lane.
The Ottawa Police Service’s collision reconstruction report in May 2014 found that Robillard “may have been texting at the time of the collision.” Phone records indicated Robillard sent outgoing text messages on his iPhone at 3:28 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 3:31 p.m.
He received messages at 3:28 p.m., 3:31 p.m. and 3:32 p.m. from the same friend.
The OPS report said Robillard was distracted by his phone, but it characterized that finding as “not conclusive” since the collision had occurred in his lane of traffic. The OPS report said Robillard was driving 80 km/h and Edwards-Turner 93 km/h.
The road has an 80 km/h speed limit.
The OPS collision report was reviewed by an outside police agency because of Robillard’s connection to the Ottawa service. It found the OPS incorrectly reported the estimated speeds of the vehicles.
In fact, it said, Robillard’s Civic was travelling at 107 km/h at the moment of impact, while the van was going 80 km/h.
A revised OPS collision report amended the speeds and said “there was not enough evidence at the scene to assist in a full crash analysis” since there were no skid marks or any evidence of braking by either vehicle.
Three lawsuits resulted. Robillard’s family sued Edwards-Turner and her insurance company for more than $1.5 million in lost wages and other damages. Edwards-Turner sued Robillard’s estate for damages, and Edwards-Turner’s family sued both parties.
All of the parties asked the court to determine who was at fault in the crash through summary judgment to avoid a full trial.
Robillard’s lawyer presented court with an independent accident reconstruction report prepared in December 2018 by engineer Gordon Jenish.
It concluded the only probable crash scenario was that the van began to cross into the northbound lane just before the Civic crested the hill, by which time the drivers were only about 100 metres apart, leaving neither sufficient time to avoid a collision.
Lawyers for Edwards-Turner hired engineer Pamela D’Addario to review the report. She concluded Edwards-Turner had enough response time to steer to the left in an attempt to avoid Robillard.
Her lawyers contend Robillard, distracted by his phone and speeding, drifted into the lane of Edwards-Turner, who pulled into the northbound lane in an attempt to evade him.
The judge who had been asked to decide liability in the case said the issue would have to go to a full trial — unless the parties can come to a deal before then.
“The factual findings necessary to resolve the case cannot be made by reading the experts’ reports only,” Ontario Superior Court Justice Martin James concluded in a recent decision. He said the competing expert opinions both had “an air of reality” to them.
Peter Cronyn, lawyer for the Robillard family, said the case was complicated since both the quantum of damages and who was at fault were still in dispute more than nine years after the accident. “We were kind of hoping the judge would unravel that (liability),” Cronyn said.
Edward-Turner’s lawyer, Charles Gluek, declined comment on the case.