It was a moment of confusion and panic for an elderly Saanich woman driving in the Victoria airport last year that left a man dead and six others seriously injured. Today Shirley Zerbin, 82, received her sentence of a $1,500 fine and a three-year driving ban.
As Victoria provincial court judge Evan Blake noted, this is a case that started out of “innocent and mundane circumstances” and ended in profound tragedy for all.
On July 29, 2011, Zerbin drove her 1990 Pontiac Sunbird to the airport in the late morning to pick up a friend. She arrived flustered after becoming confused and lost due to the new McTavish interchange – for years she hadn’t driven farther than a grocery store near her Cedar Hill X Road home.
Airport security video played in court demonstrated that Zerbin paid her dollar, pulled into the airport’s short term parking lot and slowly drove down a row of cars. She pulled an arcing left turn and then shot diagonally across the blacktop, accelerating over the curb, plowing through a concrete picnic table filled with taxi drivers playing cards, through luggage carts and into a cement barrier in front of the security building.
Crown prosecutor Kimberly Henders Miller said investigators estimate Zerbin’s car hit the table of men at 78 kilometres per hour, and accelerated continuously throughout the incident. Father of three, 57-year-old Ramesh Sharma died and six other taxi drivers suffered significant injuries. Five of those men remain off work.
Zerbin herself was seriously injured and spent four months recovering in hospital.
Henders Miller pointed out Zerbin remains grief stricken over her actions and co-operated fully with the Sidney/North Saanich RCMP. Investigators reported the Sunbird was in good working order and that Zerbin simply mistook the gas for the brake.
“The only explanation she can offer is that she must have put her foot on the gas, that the car leapt forward and she didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t find the brake but didn’t know why,” said defense lawyer Dan Murphy. “She was deeply troubled by in the aftermath and remains deeply troubled by Mr. Sharma’s death.”
Crown and police agreed Zerbin wasn’t criminally liable and she was charged with driving without due care and attention under the Motor Vehicle Act. Besides a speeding ticket in 1991, this crash is the only blemish on her driving record in 65 years.
“I’d like to say I’m very, very sorry for hurting the taxi men and for Mr. Sharma and his family. I am very sorry,” Zerbin told the court, standing next to her son, Ted. Her lawyer told the court she would never seek a drivers license again.
Zerbin moved to Victoria in 1944, served in the air force for three years and worked at the Yarrow Shipyards until retiring on a modest pension, and has no assets beyond the car that was destroyed. She and the Victoria Airport Authority face nine civil lawsuits launched by taxi drivers impacted by the crash.
Sharma’s son Sanjeev, 23, and daughter Sabina, 18, sat through the proceedings, quietly wiping away tears as the Crown and defense lawyers described the series of events that led to their father’s death.
“I think she knows she made a mistake and is sincere. I don’t feel hatred toward her. It’s unfortunate she took a life,” Sanjeev said after court finished.
Ramesh Sharma immigrated to Canada from New Delhi, India, around 1985. Sanjeev described his father as a man who worked hard every day of his life to allow his children to have good lives and a good education.
As timing would have it, later in the day Sanjeev attended convocation at the University of Victoria to receive a B.Sc. in economics. Sabina graduates from Grade 12 in a week from Claremont secondary.
“His whole life he worked for our family,” Sanjeev said. “Since he moved here he worked to save money to make sure we had good lives.”
Since his father’s death, their mother has been unable to work and Sanjeev has split his time between school and running his father’s taxicab, which is the only source of income for the Sharma family. The family is also part of the civil lawsuit against Zerbin.
Judge Blake said the $1,500 fine and driving prohibition reflect penalties set out under the Motor Vehicle Act, and isn’t putting a price tag on the value of human life. Courts are “ill equipped” to deal with these scenarios, he said.
“Horrific consequences loom over the proceedings, but the court has to bear in mind the defendant is not being prosecuted with a criminal charge,” Blake said.
Zerbin is sincerely remorseful and had led an exemplary life, the judge said, but her fateful 19 seconds of panicked driving led to “physical and psychological (consequences) for all involved and devastation for the Sharma family that is almost beyond words.”