by Andrew Fleming
The living room inside the Aujla family’s upscale home in the St. Helen’s Park neighbourhood is covered with piles of children’s hockey gear.
It has been this way for months.
Like most families, they used to keep their sports equipment inside the garage, but that’s no longer possible after it was converted out of necessity into a new master bedroom.
Gurb Aujla, 55, used to sleep with his wife Amy upstairs, but that all changed one fateful night in January 2015. Aujla was driving west on the Fraser Highway coming home from hockey practice with his 10-year-old son when his vehicle was struck from behind by a drunk driver fleeing the scene of an earlier crash. His SUV was forced into oncoming traffic and was hit again by an eastbound pickup truck.
“When it happened, I didn’t know what was going on,” he told the Leader. “I felt it get rear-ended and all of a sudden I was just spinning around and it felt like I was getting hit in different directions.”
Aujla’s son was knocked unconscious but escaped with relatively minor foot and leg injuries, while the woman behind the wheel of the truck broke her arm.
Aujla wasn’t as lucky.
Although the former longshoreman still has a firm handshake, he is paralyzed from the chest down.
“I am in constant pain in my chest, back and neck,” he said. “I now have constant health issues such as (urinary tract infections), I have to take up to 20 pills a day and sometimes pain medication as well… I need daily help with bowel routines, showers and getting dressed.
“I will have these health issues for the rest of my life.”
Aujla now sleeps in a single bed in his former garage and has to be helped in and out by medical assistants who visit three times a day. His wife pushes her own small bed beside him at night so that they can at least still sleep together side by side.
The father of four will come face to face with the man who irreparably changed his life for the first time on Oct. 5 at the Surrey Provincial Courthouse when Christopher Evan Malloy, 52, will be sentenced after pleading guilty to several charges earlier this year. Aujla said the Crown prosecutor is asking for a jail term of 12 to 18 months.
Aujla doesn’t think it is nearly enough, saying a five-year sentence would be more appropriate.
“Because he chose to drive while drunk and because he chose to drive at an extremely excessive speed, he was literally driving a speeding bullet,” said Aujla. “I’ve been given a life sentence. I have lost three-quarters of my life and the next person may not be so lucky. The next person could be dead. I hope no one else has to go through what I have and I hope this person never again gets behind the wheel of a car.”
According to ICBC, roughly 78 people die each year in motor vehicle crashes involving impaired driving, and booze is a factor is 26 per cent of fatal car crashes. Every day, an average of four Canadians are killed and 200 more are injured as a result of alcohol and drug-related crashes.
Aujla said he doesn’t harbour personal animosity towards the driver but wants to see him off the road for good.
“I can’t be sitting there getting angry at him,” said Aujla. “I mean, I’m angry at him for what he did but it’s not like he did it personally. If it wasn’t me, it would’ve been someone else.”
Aujla said punishments for drinking and driving don’t always fit the crime in B.C. and that heavier penalties need to be handed out so that more lives aren’t destroyed. He pointed to the public outcry over the sentence given to Carol Berner, who killed four-year-old Alexa Middelaer in 2008 after losing control of her vehicle while speeding down a country road in Delta.
Berner later confessed to an undercover police officer that she’d had three glasses of wine before the crash, and the Crown requested a three to five-year sentence.
She was instead given two-and-half years by the trial judge, a verdict she unsuccessfully appealed, and was ultimately released after serving two-thirds of the sentence in 2014.
The province-wide publicity surrounding Berner’s case sparked the creation of the Immediate Roadside Prohibition (IRP) program, also known as Alexa’s Law, in 2010 and new rules for roadside suspensions of licences and vehicle impounding for impaired drivers.
Bob Rorison, president of the Metro Vancouver chapter of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), called a 12- to 18-month sentence “ridiculous.”
“That is incredibly low,” Rorison said over the phone last week. “We would hope for the four-year range. That is why we never ask for minimum sentences, we ask for maximum sentences in the federal courts. But who knows? Maybe the judge will give a longer one.”
B.C. has the toughest impaired-driving limits in Canada after dropping the legal blood alcohol limit to 0.05. First offenders caught with a blood alcohol level in the warning range – between 0.05 and 0.08 – face an immediate, three-day driving ban and a $200 fine.
Refusal to give a breath sample results in the same consequences as blowing above 0.08, and police can still lay impaired driving charges. Vehicles are also seized on the spot, and drivers are on the hook for all towing and impoundment fees.
But while the laws themselves are more stringent, Rorison said judges have a lot of leeway when it comes to handing out sentences for breaking them.
“British Columbia has been tightening up because of Alexa and other laws,” said Rorison. “British Columbia is very strong in preventing impaired driving and reducing death and injury, but whether the court will, in this case, come down heavy on the driver that hit him, I’m not sure.
“Some judges are more lenient and they compare the situation of the driver, and that is the frustrating part. They look at how it is going to affect the driver and his life but they never look at how it affected the person who was injured. They never look at that.”
Aujla says he is still adjusting to his new life in a wheelchair but said it is particularly tough having to miss out on normal family experiences.
“I am no longer able to come home from work and pick up my children,” he said. “I can’t play catch with them or take them to the park or take them swimming.”
Aujla said his five-year-old daughter still hasn’t quite grasped the family’s new reality.
“She makes statements like ‘Dad, do you remember when you used to walk?’ and ‘If you go to physio and go do more appointments, then that’ll help you walk.’
“She doesn’t understand that this is a permanent disability.”