MONTREAL - A young driver's decision to stop her car on a highway to help a family of ducks dramatically changed the lives of an entire Quebec family, a jury trial in Montreal heard Tuesday.
It should have been a quick 20-minute motorcycle ride home for Pauline Volikakis and her family to cap what had been a glorious summer day in 2010.
Instead, Volikakis fought back tears as she described how the lives of Andre Roy, her husband of 20 years, and her only child, Jessie, ended so suddenly.
Emma Czornobaj has pleaded not guilty to two counts each of criminal negligence causing death and dangerous driving causing the deaths of Roy, 50, and their 16-year-old daughter.
On the first day of Czornobaj's trial, Crown prosecutors suggested her decision to come to a full stop to help a family of ducks triggered an accident that left the father and daughter dead.
The Crown said in its opening statement that Czornobaj wasn't physically in her car and that the vehicle was stopped, with the engine running and without any emergency lights, in the left lane of Highway 30, south of Montreal.
Prosecutor Annie-Claude Chasse said witness and police testimony will show the accused was on a narrow shoulder patch next to the passing lane, tending to a family of ducks on the roadway.
"Would a reasonable and prudent person, in the same circumstances as was the accused, have done the same?" Chasse asked the jury. "Would that reasonable and prudent person have stopped their car, on a busy highway, in order to save some ducks?"
It was a nice, relaxed Sunday and Volikakis said ice cream was to be on the menu when they arrived home. Roy was driving and his daughter was riding pillion on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, while Volikakis rode her own motorcycle behind them.
The tragedy occurred suddenly.
Volikakis testified she saw a woman walking dangerously along the narrow shoulder on the side of the highway. She also saw a car at a standstill in the passing lane.
"I wondered what she was doing there, it was not the place to be," Volikakis said.
She testified that Roy gestured to the accused as if to warn her it was dangerous for her to be there. Seconds later, his bike slammed into the stationary car, sending both of the occupants in the motorcycle flying.
They were later declared dead in hospital.
Charges against Czornobaj, who is now 25, were laid more than a year later. While the maximum sentences are unlikely, criminal negligence causing death carries a maximum term of life imprisonment, while the charge of dangerous driving causing death comes with a maximum of 14 years in jail. Czornobaj has no previous record.
Earlier on Tuesday, eyewitness Martine Tessier testified she was driving along the same stretch of highway on June 27, 2010. The weather was nice, the sun was setting and the road conditions were excellent.
Tessier said she was driving at about 110 km/h when she saw a woman along the side of the road seemingly trying to shoo along a family of ducks.
"I shouted to my kids (in the car) 'What is she doing there? She's going to get killed," Tessier told the jury.
She testified that, moments later, she was staring down a car, completely stopped with no hazard lights on, with the door open on the driver's side.
"It was close enough that I knew I didn't have time to brake," Tessier said. Instead, she swerved to get around the car. Then she looked back in her rear-view mirror and saw something else hit the vehicle.
"I saw a body go over the car, it was like a rag doll," Tessier said. "I shouted to my daughter to call 911 with my cellphone."
The jury is composed of 10 men and two women, while three weeks have been set aside for the trial.
Proceedings continue Wednesday.