On June 27, 2010, 25-year old Emma Czornobaj stopped on Highway 30 west of Montreal to rescue some ducks crossing the road. She parked on the left-hand lane, put her blinkers on and proceeded to get out of her Honda Civic to push the ducks out of harm’s way.
A first motorist went around to avoid her car but a second one carrying a father and his 16-year-old daughter riding in the back, collided with her car and they both died as a result.
Even with no criminal intent attached to her actions, Emma was convicted of an offence that carries a maximum life sentence; the jury that deliberated four days, found her guilty of two counts of criminal negligence causing death and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death which could lead to a maximum sentence of 14 years.
Emma was ready to plead guilty to some of the charges but with no jail time. Her lawyer Marc Labelle tried to negotiate a deal with the Crown but nothing came of it. The case was in the media so they wanted their pound of flesh and insisted she did jail time.
Labelle insists to say that Canadian criminal law is not designed to handle such a case that found his client guilty of criminal negligence causing death. At trial, Labelle acknowledged his client’s action was ‘’open to criticism’’ and even ‘’dangerous’’, but he vehemently denied it was criminal.
“There may be room here in this case. But we’ll evaluate that: (whether) to ask the (Quebec) Court of Appeal if the way that a jury has to (consider) criminal negligence in Canada should be revised. Here we have a situation where the act was considered dangerous by the jury — that’s obvious. But there was no ill will at all — no alcohol, no speeding, no race. In a case like this, the instructions that the judge gave (to the jury) are a little bit unjust for a citizen in this situation.”
He also specified that he didn’t have a problem with the instructions Superior Court Justice Éliane Perreault provided to the jury before they deliberated.
“What I’m saying is that the instructions (all) judges are obliged to give on criminal negligence can’t suit a case like this. What the jury is asked is: consider the act, if it is dangerous, objectively, then you may infer there was a crime.’’
This case is stretching the limits of the criminal negligence definition and dangerous driving. Emma was an animal lover and when she stopped on the highway to avoid a family of ducks, she did put her hazards light on and never imagined that the outcome would be the loss of human lives.
Soon after she stopped, the motorcycle driven by André Roy and his daughter Jessie slammed in her car but he was driving exceedingly fast and wearing no helmet. A woman driving behind Emma had managed to avoid hitting her before Roy crashed into her car.
Her lawyer said she made a decision open to criticism with no ill will. She wanted to rescue some ducks. “You can’t judge this based on the type of animals involved. For example, what if this were four Labrador puppies.’’ Some people are having a field day because she cared about ducks.
Her lawyer, fiercely defends her saying it wasn’t a crime and that while she certainly has a fair amount of critics, her actions are not criminal and do not warrant prison.
Some factors beyond Czornobaj’s control included the position of the setting sun that night as drivers were headed west, and the speed at which Roy was driving his Harley-Davidson when it crashed.
Pauline Volikalis, the wife and mother who lost two family members in this accident says she doesn’t blame the young woman who will be charged in their deaths. When asked by reporters if she wants Emma to go to prison, she had no comments and said that she wished nothing of the sort for the defendant.
Volikakis insisted tat she had not pushed for charges against Czornobaj and was unable even to say whether she considered it a good thing the trial was held.
“It’s not me that’s bringing her to court,” she said. “I have no expectations concerning this trial.”
But she hopes the publicity will reinforce a basic message to drivers.
“Future and present drivers should know that we don’t stop on highways, and it’s very dangerous. Even if it’s a small animal that we like or that we want to preserve, we should not stop on the highways,” she said. “It’s not a place to stop.”
Czornobaj was willing to plead guilty as recently as April but refused to do jail time. She now has a sentencing hearing scheduled for August.
Lawyer Marc Labelle said his client was shocked by the verdict. He said the jury decided there was a criminal element to what she did. He said he might file an appeal.
“So now we are at the sentencing stage in this case. The question we have to ask is that considering the nature of the facts, it is rare that we have criminal negligence where there are no bad elements. This was not a race. This was not a person who took a chance and drove drunk. This is not about someone who was speeding and took a risky maneuver,” Labelle told reporters while suggesting his client might only merit a sentence that can be served in the community.
During the trial, a witness testified that she saw Czornobaj on the left-hand side of the highway, bent over and motioning to some ducks.
“I shouted to my children: ‘What is she doing there? She’s going to get killed,’” she noticed that the driver’s door of the parked car was open and she saw her car lift up in the air from the impact.
Emma, as a professed animal lover, told the court that she did not see the ducklings’ mother anywhere and planned to catch them and bring them home. She could easily would have been the one killed. Her actions were naive but she was well-intentioned.
Labelle said he will use the next few weeks to decide if he will ask for a pre-sentencing report when the case comes back to court on Aug. 8. The report would involve a criminologist looking at many aspects of Emma’s life, as well as her attitude towards what she’s been convicted of, and make recommendations to the judge. Czornobaj, a financial analyst who graduated from Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, has no criminal record. She also made the dean’s list at Concordia while she studied there.
Emma’s actions are hard to understand but no one can deny that she intended to help animals and never imagined that she would cause a highway accident.
The fact that Pauline Volikalis does not blame her for the loss of her family, considering the circumstances, should have been sufficient to let her cut a deal involving community service. But as usual, the media glare made the Crown eager to shine in the spotlight.
When it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it is a duck and Emma is not a criminal but a fine young lady who made a huge mistake. She should not end up in prison for it. She will no doubt, live the rest of her life haunted by this ride to hell and the two people who lost their lives because of her impulsive decision to save baby ducks.
Sadly, the wife and mother of the two victims, Pauline Volikakis, has changed her mind and now says she wants Emma Czornobaj to face a sentence that reflects the gravity of her decision. She made her case against leniency at Czornobaj’s sentence hearing.
The Crown is seeking a nine month prison term for Czornobaj and 240 hours of community service. The defence agrees with the 240 hours of community service, but is arguing for a suspended sentence with three years of probation, saying there was no criminal intent.
Despite a public apology to Volikakis from Czornobaj in an interview with CBC News in July, the grieving wife and mother said Czornobaj should have done so sooner — and to her personally.
“Why didn’t she do so following the accident? She never once tried to contact me. During the trial she had opportunities to speak to me,” Volikakis said.
Czornobaj’s mother, Mary Hogan, told during the hearing that her daughter is sorry about the accident, which has affected her profoundly.
“It changed who she was, at her very core… It was something she couldn’t talk about or share with us at all… She just couldn’t accept that it had happened,” she said.
Update: Emma Czornobaj was sentenced to 90 days in jail, will be prohibited from driving for 10 years and must perform 240 hours of community service.
Her attorney says she will appeal the driving ban.
Update: On Friday December 9, 2014, the Quebec Court of Appeal agreed to put her sentence on hold until the appeal case is heard. As a result, Czornobaj does not have to report to jail, as originally decided by the court. She can also retain her driver’s licence.
Czornobaj is appealing her trial, and as a result, Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Yves-Marie Morissette has suspended her sentence and ordered her driver’s licence be reinstated. Until her appeal has been heard, she is allowed to drive, and will reside in a suburb of Montreal, instead of jail to do her time on weekends. She was supposed to start serving her term in January 2015, but that’s on hold until further notice.
Update: In June 2017, Czornobaj lost her appeal.