Car involved in crash had defects

Expert mechanic testifies at woman’s trial that deficiencies could have aided in accident

Rosie Mullaley
Published on November 17, 2010

The car driven by Natasha Stapleton the night it spun out of control and crashed, killing a passenger, was not fit to be on the road, according to an expert mechanic.

Testifying in the second day of Stapleton’s trial at provincial court in St. John’s Tuesday, Fred Pittman told the court he inspected Stapleton’s 1991 Grand Prix two days after the accident and found several mechanical deficiencies, which were present before the crash.

“Knowing what you now know about the pre-accident condition of the car,” defence lawyer Randy Piercey asked Pittman, “would you certify it for the road?”

“I would certainly not,” Pittman replied.

Stapleton, 23, faces charges of dangerous driving causing death and two counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm.

She was charged following the single-vehicle accident Oct. 3, 2009 on Blackhead Road.

Stapleton lost control of the car which left the road, hit a guard rail and went over an embankment, snapping off trees before coming to a smashing halt in the woods.

The body of Kayla Reid was found about 50 metres from the car. The 23-year-old had been ejected from the back seat.

Two other female passengers were seriously injured.

Police calculated Stapleton was driving at 127 km/h — double the speed of what she told officers.

Pittman, who has completed several accident reports for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, said the defects he found may have affected the handling of the car.

One of the major defects was the left front sway bar link was broken, which can have an impact on steering.

“The sway bar allows the transfer of force. … If it’s intact, a driver would have better control of the car,” Pittman said.

“If it’s not, it would cause the car to sway. It wouldn’t hug the road. It would lean more to one side.”

He also said the right rear tire had low air pressure.

“Lower tire pressure than normal will tend to cause a vehicle to pull in that direction,” Pittman said.

He said the car also had a broken left front spring, which causes a vehicle to sag lower in one corner.

“If it’s sagging in one corner,” he said, “it will affect the steering angle, and may cause the vehicle to go to one side.”

Having people in the back seat, he said, would also diminish the steering of the car.

Other faults with the car, which Pittman said wouldn’t necessarily affect handling, include an uncertified pipe replacement in the exhaust system, a disconnected hand brake, body corrosion and air bags that didn’t deploy.

When Crown prosecutor Jennifer Colford asked Pittman if he could determine whether or not the mechanical problems had anything to do with the accident, he replied, “Not to say this was the sole cause — some of the defects could have aided (the crash).”

Stapleton, who had her licence less than a month before the accident, had bought the car the day before the crash.

The man who sold her the car and issued the inspection certificate, was also charged.

Wayne Joseph Johnson, 51, pleaded guilty to forging an inspection certificate, making a false entry in a motor vehicle inspection book and breach of trust by a public officer.

His case is due back in court Jan. 6 for a sentencing hearing.

Const. Paul Didham was lead investigator on both the Stapleton and Johnson cases.

He testified Tuesday that Johnson bought the car from scrap for $150, did some work on it, put together an inspection registration document and sold it to Stapleton for $1,500.

Didham was also at the accident scene.

He testified that from examination of the tire skid marks left on the road, it was determined Stapleton was travelling at “a fairly excessive speed.”

The car landed 53 metres from the road, which he said would not have been possible if it had been travelling, say, at 90 km/hr.

He said the marks also established that Stapleton did not apply her brakes

“The tires were not locked during the slide,” he said.

Stapleton told police she put on the brake after she lost her glasses. They fell off, she said, when she flicked her hair to untangle her earring.

Dr. Simon Avis, the province’s chief medical examiner, is scheduled to take the stand today.