Saskatchewan·CBC Investigates

City of Regina admits brake failure on transit bus led to Barbara Supynuk's death

The City of Regina has admitted that brake failure on a transit bus led to the death of Barbara Supynuk back in 2013, according to a document filed in the court of Queens Bench. Now a judge needs to decide if the city can escape paying punitive damages to Supynuk’s family.

City says province’s “no-fault” insurance means no punitive damages for family of dead woman

The City of Regina has admitted that brake failure on a transit bus led to the death of a woman in 2013, according to a document filed in the court of Queen's Bench. Now, a judge needs to decide if the city can escape paying punitive damages to the woman's family.

On Feb. 15, 2013, Barbara Supynuk was waiting at a downtown bus stop when a bus veered off the road and hit a sign. It fell and hit her on the head.  She died a few weeks later.  
The family of Barbara Supynuk is suing the City of Regina over the woman's death at a bus stop. (Courtesy: Supynuk family)

Supynuk's family launched a lawsuit against the city, claiming poorly maintained brakes on that bus led to her death. Their claim was based in part on the coroner's contention that evidence showed "the rear left brake was not operational which would have caused the bus to veer to the right and leave the roadway."

The coroner's report also points out that in the six weeks leading up to the accident, there had been 11 vehicle defect reports filed about the bus involved in Supynuk's death. Five of them raised brake issues.

In September 2013, the city pleaded guilty to violating the vehicle equipment regulations for failing to maintain the brakes. It received a $770 fine.  

Despite that, in an interview the very same month, then-deputy city manager Brent Sjoberg told CBC "the brakes were not the cause or a contributing factor to the accident."

"If the left rear brake had been functioning the bus would have been able to stop 1.8 metres before the metal post that it struck and a collision and the consequent fatal injuries to Supynuk would not have occurred."- - William Acteson - accident reconstructionist

Now, the city agrees brake failure played a role, according to a June 2017 pre-trial conference report written by Justice Dennis Ball.

Under the "matters agreed upon" section, Ball wrote "proximate cause of fatal accident was malfunctioning left rear brake of City of Regina bus 548."

That is the conclusion an accident reconstructionist hired by the Supynuk family came to as well.

In his Feb. 14, 2017, report, Alberta-based William Acteson found "if the left rear brake had been functioning the bus would have been able to stop 1.8 metres before the metal post that it struck and a collision and the consequent fatal injuries to Supynuk would not have occurred."

CBC asked the city and the Supynuk family for interviews, but both declined because the matter is before the court. It is scheduled to go to trial in April.

City argues it doesn't owe punitive damages

In its statement of claim, the Supynuk family argues that Barbara died as a result of the city's failure to properly maintain its bus fleet, and as a result claims the city owes the family punitive damages.

"The city made a conscious decision to underfund the city transit system by failing to pay the money necessary to replace and or repair the buses which entitles the plaintiff to punitive and/or exemplary damages," the Supynuk family says in court filings.

According to the judge's pre-trial notes, the case between the Supynuk family and the city turns on whether Saskatchewan's no-fault insurance law allows the city to escape paying punitive damages.

The insurance act prohibits suing for bodily injury. It says "no person has any right of action respecting, arising out of or stemming from bodily injuries caused by a motor vehicle arising out of an accident."

However, the Supynuks say the act provides for exceptions and it will argue this is one of those exceptional cases.

In court documents, the Supynuk's lawyer argues that a review of an earlier version of the province's insurance act found flaws with that law. The review concluded people who are injured by the actions of institutions should have the right to sue them for damages under some circumstances.

The December 2000 report said "institutions should not be able indirectly [to] gain immunity from tort actions where they have been negligent in causing an accident." The law was changed following this report and the Supynuks' lawyer argues the act should be interpreted in light of the review report's conclusions.

This issue will be argued in court next week, in advance of the planned three-week trial in April. 

Bus maintenance understaffed: report

A 2014 report about the city's bus maintenance system, commissioned by the city of Regina and filed in court, highlights a number of areas where the maintenance program fell short. It concluded the most significant problem was a lack of qualified mechanics to do the work.
Regina Transit is responsible to inspect its own buses, in this facility, and ensure they meet national safety standards. (CBC)

The analyst, John King of JMK Consulting, said the city had enough mechanic positions approved, "however, there are, and for several years have been too many vacant transit mechanic positions."

In 2014, there were 15 approved positions but five vacancies so "the net result is there is too much work for the staff and some work will be delayed."

In addition, King found that many of the mechanics on staff were relatively new and "there are no formal transit-specific training programs for mechanics, so newer employees are still learning the details in regards to maintaining these specialized vehicles."

The report said the City of Regina was having a tough time recruiting mechanics because its wages were lower than Saskatoon's and bus maintenance can require Saturday and Sunday shifts. Finally, it noted the repair facility at the time was old, dark and congested.

Mechanic shortage caused problems  

King said this chronic shortage of mechanics has led to "serious issues" with the bus maintenance program.

The report says the city has a comprehensive plan for maintaining the buses "however, the on-time performance of the preventative maintenance inspections is very poor, with almost 50 per cent of the 2,500 km and the 5,000 km inspections past due."

The on-time performance of the preventative maintenance inspections is very poor, with almost 50 per cent of the 2,500 km and the 5,000 km inspections past due.- John King - JMK Consulting report

"Many are so overdue, that the inspections are completely missed."

The report did note that most of the 10,000-km and 20,000-km inspections were completed on time.

The analyst also found that the city didn't have a good system of tracking and prioritizing repairs.

King said compared to other similar sized cities, Regina's "bus fleet maintenance program is underfunded," and he warned "if the budget is not adjusted, the entire maintenance program for Regina's transit fleet will suffer."

In its court filings the city says "an effective maintenance program will not ensure that all buses will never have any mechanical defects. Conversely, a shoddy maintenance program will not in and of itself necessarily be the cause of an accident."

King's report made many recommendations to the city. CBC asked if those recommendations have been followed but a spokesperson wrote "this document relates to a matter that is before the Court.  The City will not comment while the matter is before the Court."

About the Author

Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo has been a reporter for CBC News in Saskatchewan since 2001. His work as an investigative journalist and documentary producer has earned numerous national and regional awards.

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