Nfld. & Labrador

Mom pleads for law on road barriers after son's death

The mother of a teen who died in a recent dirt bike accident is pushing for a law against unmarked barriers like the one that killed him.

Stephen Brown died in dirt bike accident near Lethbridge; family wants action on hazards

Stephen's Law

Here and Now

9 years ago
CBC's Azzo Rezori speaks with Michelle Brown, who wants a new law on road barriers following her son's death 9:37

The mother of a teen who died in a recent dirt bike accident is pushing for a law against unmarked barriers like the one that killed him.

Stephen Brown, 15, died earlier this month when he drove his brand-new dirt bike into an unmarked chain and cable combination on a gravel road near Lethbridge.

"There has to be some rules and regulations in place," Michelle Brown told CBC News. "If there's not, then we want to look at a way that we can change that ...

Stephen Brown, pictured in a family photo, died in a dirt bike crash near Lethbridge earlier this month. (CBC)

"At the end of the day, if we can have a legacy to our son, then we want to have a law in place and we want to call it Stephen's Law."

Michelle Brown says her son didn't know the chain was there. He was on his way to join friends on their bikes down the road.

"I trusted him completely," she said, noting that they talked about safety.

She said there was no signage at the site of the accident: "There was nothing to tell him there was a blockage there in the road. He went right into it."

Lucky to be alive

Another Newfoundland town, another accident — this one with a different ending.

Rowena Watkins is lucky to be alive after she drove her father's ATV into a marked rope strung across the gate to a farm outside Campbellton.

"I can't remember when it happened," Watkins said. "All I remember is seeing it being so close. Then after, not being able to feel my face."

Rowena Watkins still has marks on her face a month after she drove her ATV into a marked rope strung across the gate to a farm. (CBC)

The rope caught her in the mouth. There are marks on her face to this day, a month after the accident.

The 17-year-old said she was not speeding. "I don't like driving fast," she said.

Exactly what happened in that incident remains up in the air.

Rowena's mother, Tina Watkins, said her brief discussion with the owner of the farm was unsatisfying.

"He never showed no compassion, no sympathy," she said. "No concern for what had happened to her."

But strawberry farm owner Philip Thornlea tells a different tale. He said Tina Watkins did not want to hear what he had to say.

"I said that rope has been there for 10 years or more. It's what I do every evening when I close up the farm. I didn't know the girl was hurt, and I said to her there's bigger questions here than that, and she hung up on me."

Crash statistics

According to the RCMP, there have been 11 dirt bike or ATV-related accidents reported to the force in the regions of the province under its jurisdiction since Jan. 1.

One of those — the case of Stephen Brown — resulted in a death.

Eight of the accidents caused non-fatal injuries. The other two involved only property damage.

Stephen Brown died after hitting this chained barrier while riding his dirt bike. (CBC)

RCMP Sgt. Marc Coulombe says the force does not keep statistics on how many of those cases involved riders striking a barrier.

But he steered inquiries involving that level of detail to the provincial government.

The Department of Transportation said it was working to find such statistics Tuesday, although they weren't available before deadline.

Meanwhile, ATV safety instructor Rick Noseworthy has heard this discussed among his peers as a serious problem across the country.

He is trying to do his part by training drivers to be alert. But Noseworthy said there's another, just as obvious, course of action.

"Make it visible so people see it," Noseworthy said. "You know, the quicker you see it the more time you have to react. It's a no-brainer."

Occupiers' liability

There do not appear to be any laws specifically governing such barriers on private property, although there is a general legal responsibility to make sure land is safe.

It's called occupiers' liability. Newfoundland and Labrador is one of the few provinces without an occupiers' liability law.

CBC News contacted three government departments; officials indicated that there are no plans for legislation.

In the absence of a law, the province's courts have filled the void.

The main precedent is a 1999 case that went all the way to the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal.

A woman fell down and hurt herself in the cemetery just off Forest Road in St. John's. She sued, and won. The Anglican Church appealed, and had that decision overturned.

The appeal court judge noted the lack of legislation in Newfoundland and Labrador, writing that "the archaic, cumbersome and often unfair nature of the law of occupiers' liability as it presently exists in this province cries out for reform."

Michelle Brown wants a law against unmarked barriers like the one that killed her son, Stephen. (CBC)

Although the judges ruled against the woman, in making their decision the appeal court decided to set a new standard.

It shifted more responsibility onto property owners,  to make sure visitors are "reasonably safe."

St. John's lawyer Ches Crosbie says, in general, the standard comes down to common sense.

"The best advice to landowners or people who occupy property is step back and have a look around," Crosbie told CBC News.

"And just think to yourself — is there anything, any feature of my property, whether it's in my dwelling, or out around the property, that could present a hazard that could injure somebody, sometimes badly. And if so, usually it's easy enough to take precautions against that."

And it's not only invited visitors who are covered — even people who are not supposed to be there.

"Trespassers have rights also," Crosbie said. "They may not be the same rights as someone who's invited and expected to be on the land, but you can't, for example, dig a pit and put sharpened stakes in it and then cover it over to catch trespassers. That's going to attract liability for sure."

Crosbie says case law here is similar to the standards set in other jurisdictions.

Focus on prevention

The day after the memorial for Stephen Brown, the family went to the RCMP detachment in Clarenville to ask questions.

Michelle Brown decided the question of who to blame for her son's death was for a later day.

For now, she wants to focus on prevention and the issue of unmarked and unregulated barriers.

"I had a boy that had everything to live for," she said. "And in one short minute it's gone."