U of Regina found negligent in Miranda Biletski case, $9M in damages awarded

The University of Regina has been deemed negligent by a jury in a June 2005 accident that left Mianda Biletski a quadriplegic. Biletski and the Piranhas Swim Club were deemed not at fault in the same accident.

Paralympian and swim club not at fault in shallow dive that left Biletski a quadriplegic, jury decides

Miranda Biletski says the best part of the verdict handed down by the jury on her case Friday is that she can finally say neither she nor the Piranhas Swim Club are responsible for the accident that left her a quadriplegic. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

The University of Regina has been deemed negligent by a jury in a June 2005 diving accident that left Miranda Biletski a quadriplegic.

Biletski and the Piranhas Swim Club were deemed not at fault in the same accident.

The jury indicated that verdict at Regina Court of Queen's Bench Friday evening, bringing an end to a legal saga that began in 2007, when Biletski filed the lawsuit.

In total, the jury awarded Biletski more than $9 million for damages, residence modifications, care items, loss of future earnings and loss of marriage/interdependence benefits.

Biletski began weeping softly when the verdict was being read and once proceedings ended, she was embraced by those around her.

'It's finally recognized'

"I think it's finally recognized that it wasn't a fault on my end or the swim club's," the athlete, who competed as a member of Canada's national wheelchair rugby team in the 2016 Rio Paralympics, told reporters, struggling not to break down in tears.

"I think we all knew all along but to actually be able to say it now, I think that's the most enjoyable part of this."

Biletski dove into a pool from competition starting blocks at the university during a Piranhas Swim Club practice in June 2005. The then-16-year-old hit the bottom and fractured her cervical vertebrae, leaving her a quadriplegic.

At the time of the accident, Biletski was a promising speed swimmer who'd recently joined the Piranhas Swim Club. She'd been swimming with the club for just 37 days

After Friday's verdict, she expressed relief by joking about going home to a bottle of wine and bed, before taking a more serious tone in encouraging others who might be dealing with a similar situation.

Miranda Biletski on the diving block at a swim meet in Assiniboia, Sask., in 2004. (Submitted by Miranda Biletski)

"Don't give up," she said.

"It would've been really easy to throw in the towel five or six or even seven years ago," she said.

Regarding what the dollar amount awarded by the jury meant to her, she said, "Honest, I kind of zoned out after they said the U of R was liable for everything."

Her lawyer, Alan McIntyre, noted that the process had been a struggle, saying "we've toiled mightily for the last 10 years or so.

"My client is a champion and we prevailed."

A shallow dive

The university argued during the trial the pool depth and the height of the starting blocks met Swimming Canada guidelines.

The block from which Biletski dove was in an area of the pool 1.22 metres deep — in line with international standards. However, the International Swimming Federation, a world governing body for competitive swimming, now requires a minimum depth of 1.35 metres where swimmers will be diving from blocks. Swim Canada only enforces that depth for new pools built after 2002.

Miranda Biletski playing wheelchair rugby. She competed as a member of Canada's national wheelchair rugby team in the 2016 Rio Paralympics. (BC Wheelchair Sports)

McIntyre argued that amount of water in the pool at the time of the dive was a key issue.

Workers from the facility and pool supervisors confirmed that water depth drops over time as swimmers splash about and remove water that's been absorbed into their swimsuits.

Pool maintenance logs indicated that water had been added to the pool only once during the two months leading up to Biletski's accident.

Craig Chamerblin, the university dean in charge of the pool at the time, testified that record keeping was a continuing problem.

He told the jury that three witnesses had told him the water level was at the top of the pool when Biletski was injured, but that no measurements or photos were taken.

While being cross-examined, the U of R aquatics supervisor, Gabor Jerkovits, said he couldn't say for sure where the water level was when Biletski performed the dive.

The university filed its own suit against the Piranhas Swim Club to cover damages if liability was established.

The club's lawyer, Reg Watson, brought forward evidence that the Piranhas never signed a rental contract relieving the university of liability.

Biletski says it was difficult to hear testimony that quadriplegia would shorten her life by two decades. (Brandon Harder/CBC)

Personal details laid bare

Throughout the course of the trial, the court heard information of a personal nature from Biletski, outlining the physical difficulties she has experienced since the accident.

A bowel movement now takes her several hours and and she must put in her own catheter to go to the the bathroom.

Experts also provided projections that quadriplegia will likely shorten her life expectancy.

"You definitely have to check your ego and dignity at the door on that one," she said, responding to a question about what it's like to share such details before the courts.

Until now she has gone without equipment that could could assist her, for financial reasons.

However, a large part of the total funds awarded to her by the jury is intended to help her attain such equipment, including $250,000 for modifications to her residence and over $500,000 for care items.

With files from Bonnie Allen