Ottawa bus-train crash: city in tough position, says lawyer

A municipal lawyer and former Ottawa city councillor says the city's lawsuit against Via Rail Canada is a "very unique case" because of the emotional element of the 2013 OC Transpo and Via Rail crash, which left six people dead.

Statement of defence filed yesterday: city points finger at VIA rail

The double decker OC Transpo bus damaged during last year's collision with a Via Rail train sits at the scene in September 2013. (Transportation Safety Board of Canada)

The City of Ottawa is caught in a tough legal position over the Via Rail train and OC Transpo bus crash that left six people dead, says a former Ottawa city councillor and lawyer specializing in municipal issues.

"The city cannot afford to cough out millions of dollars each time an accident happens," Stephane Emard Chabot told CBC's Ottawa Morning.

"So there's a business aspect to it, but there's also a very human aspect to it," he added. "We have victims here, they were riding a bus going to work on an everyday morning, and they lost their lives. And clearly something horrible went wrong. For politicians, it is a tough call." 

The city is defending lawsuits filed by the families of Michael Bleakney and Rob More, two of the six people who died when the bus and train collided on Sept. 18, 2013.​

City lawyers also filed a third-party claim against Via Rail Canada as part of its defence on Monday.

Chabot, a former city councillor for the former Ottawa ward of Bruyère-Strathcona and a former law professor at the University of Ottawa, said the move to sue Via Rail is a common legal practice.

"They will try to pin the blame on someone else, or at least part of it," he said. "And that is quite standard in a negligence lawsuit."

The city denies any negligence in the collision, which happened at a level crossing on the Transitway near the Fallowfield station, located in the south Ottawa community of Barrhaven.

"They're going to try and say the fault isn't with us, the fault is with the train," Chabot said.

But Chabot believes the push to sue Via Rail is coming more from the city's insurance company than the city itself.

"At this point, it's not the city of Ottawa calling the shots," he said. "The insurers are taking over. The city will probably have some say but the insurance company will drive this probably to the end."

Bus speed, distracted driving were potential factors: TSB

Chabot said the likelihood of the lawsuit ending up in court is slim.

"Statistically, 95 to 97 per cent of cases are settled," he said. "Going to court is very expensive. I wouldn't be surprised, especially once we get the (full) Transportation Safety Board report, that offers will start flying back and forth."

The TSB's preliminary report, released in September 2014, listed the speed of the bus and distracted driving as possible factors in the crash.

Bleakney's family is seeking $1.8 million in damages while More's family is looking for $600,000 after the crash. Ten crash survivors have also sought damages from the city, but statements of defence have not been filed in those lawsuits.

The total amount sought by the 12 plaintiffs is $12.75 million.