British Columbia

Queen of the North trial starts 7 years after sinking

The criminal trial for former BC Ferries officer Karl Lilgert gets underway this week, as he faces charges in connection with the deaths of two passengers in the Queen of the North sinking seven years ago.

Trial delay criticized but no explanation offered by Crown or defence

Former navigation officer Karl Lilgert has pleaded not guilty. (CBC)

The criminal trial of former Queen of the North crew member Karl Lilgert gets underway this week, almost seven years after the B.C. ferry crashed into an island and sank on the province’s North Coast.

Lilgert faces charges of criminal negligence causing death in connection with passengers Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, of 100 Mile House, B.C., whose bodies were never found and are presumed drowned.

Lilgert was the navigation officer and on the bridge on March 22, 2006,  according to a subsequent Transportation Safety Board investigation. He was the officer in charge after the Second Officer went for a scheduled lunch break.

Lilgert has pleaded not guilty to the two counts.

Jury selection was conducted Jan. 9.

Neither Lilgert's lawyer or the Crown have commented on why it's taken this long to get to court.

Charges laid in 2010

A basic timeline provided by B.C.'s criminal justice branch states the initial investigative report was provided to Crown by police in February 2008.

Charges were sworn on March 16, 2010, four years after the incident. A preliminary inquiry was held in provincial court in May 2011, while the indictment was signed the following September.

"Any delay like that is really troubling," Bentley Doyle, spokesman for the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C., said in an interview.

"It's very tough for everyone involved, for either side of the file."

He said some of the typical causes for delays include difficulty aligning lawyers' schedules, complex disclosure in which lawyers need to read tens of thousands of pages of documents, and a lack of judges.

A trial should commence within 18 months, as justice is jeopardized when the delay creeps towards two years and beyond, Bentley said. Cases have sometimes been thrown out.

Lilgert's lawyer, Glen Orris, told The Canadian Press at the time the charges were approved that his client would plead not guilty.

"He doesn't deny that he is responsible for what happened. He was the person in charge of the ferry at the time that it ran aground, so clearly, he's the one who's responsible," said Orris in March 2010.

"But my view is the mistake or mistakes he may have made don't amount to criminal negligence."

The wreck occurred in the wee morning hours when the ship slammed into Gil Island. It was four hours into its regular run to Port Hardy, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, from Prince Rupert on the northwest coast.

Sank in  about an hour

It took just a little over an hour for the vessel to go down, after striking land at a cruising speed of roughly 30 kilometres an hour.

Passengers were saved by descending into lifeboats and about seven First Nations vessels that came to their aid, arriving before the coast guard.

The Queen of the North travelled the route between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert on B.C.'s North Coast.

The ferry's hull plating along the starboard side was ripped open at the waterline.

The trial takes place after a full investigation by the Transportation Safety Board, which concluded with a report in March 2008. In conjunction, the board also made recommendations to bump up safety for ship passengers across Canada.

The board concluded Canadian passenger vessels should improve procedures for keeping track of passengers and for crew training in an emergency. It also recommended all large Canadian vessels be fitted with voyage data recorders.

B.C. Ferries also conducted an internal investigation.

Families of the dead passengers in the meantime settled lawsuits with BC Ferries, while a class-action suit was also settled for 45 passengers who made it off the ship.