An elderly couple is suing Thorold city councillor Jim Handley for $3.4-million, alleging he was “careless” and “incompetent” when he hit them with his pickup truck as they walked across a downtown intersection three years ago.
Joseph and Joan Vernon, who live in St. Catharines, claim they suffered “serious, severe, disabling and permanent injuries” because of Handley’s “negligence” behind the wheel on the night of Dec. 6, 2019. He was “driving carelessly” and “failed to yield the right of way to pedestrians,” the lawsuit alleges.
“He failed to watch what he was doing,” reads the statement of claim, filed at the Robert S.K. Welch Courthouse. “He was an incompetent driver lacking in reasonable skill, experience and self-command and ought not to have been operating a motor vehicle at the relevant time and place.”
None of the allegations have been proven in court. In his statement of defence, Handley “expressly denies” any wrongdoing and says if anyone was negligent, it was the Vernons. He has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit and order the plaintiffs to pay his legal costs.
The statement of claim alleges that the Vernons, both 77 at the time, were walking in downtown Thorold that evening when they reached the intersection of Front St. S. and Clairmont St. shortly after 6:30 p.m. The claim says that as they crossed Clairmont, a white pickup truck — license plate ‘JACMUP’ — was heading south on Front and made a left turn, striking the couple in the crosswalk.
Emergency crews responded to the collision and both victims were transported to hospital. When a ThoroldToday photographer arrived at the intersection, Handley’s pickup was parked near a fire truck and yellow tape encircled the accident scene.
After a police investigation, Handley was issued a ticket for “turn not in safety” and fined $110. Because the offence is a non-criminal charge that falls under the Highway Traffic Act, the Niagara Regional Police Service did not publicly release Handley’s name at the time.
But court documents obtained by ThoroldToday reveal that three years later, the legal fallout is far from over.
In their multi-million-dollar civil lawsuit, the Vernons claim the accident inflicted serious physical and psychological injuries that “will always require attendant care and extensive rehabilitation and treatment.”
Joseph Vernon claims he suffered a concussion, fractured ribs, a rotator cuff tear, memory loss, and an “injury to the nervous system resulting in anxiety and severe nervousness.” Joan Vernon says the collision fractured her left elbow and shoulder, broke two teeth, and caused a brain injury that resulted in chronic headaches, dizziness and an inability to concentrate.
“As a further result of the injuries outlined above, the Plaintiffs have both developed psychogenic aspects to their injuries, together with anxiety and depression, sleeplessness, loss of appetite and related features, all of which have increased, magnified and will prolong indefinitely their pain, suffering and disability from the injuries sustained,” reads the statement of claim.
As is typical in personal injury lawsuits linked to motor vehicle accidents, the statement of claim includes a long list of specific allegations that have yet to be tested in court. Among other things, the claim accuses the veteran city councillor of speeding, driving with his headlights off, being “impaired by alcohol or drugs or fatigue,” and texting while driving.
Filed in August 2021 — 20 months after the incident — the Vernons’ lawsuit seeks $1.5-million each in general damages and $200,000 each in reciprocal damages. Their lawyer, Roelf Swart, declined to comment when contacted by ThoroldToday.
Handley filed his written statement of defence three months ago, on July 13. In it, he “expressly denies” that he was careless or negligent on the night of the collision. He says he “properly stopped at the stop sign” when he reached the intersection, and as he turned left, he claims the Vernons “suddenly and without warning” walked in front and “struck” his truck.
Like the statement of claim, Handley’s defence filing includes a long list of allegations that have yet to be tested in court. He claims the accident was caused by the couple’s “own negligence,” including alcohol or drug use, walking outside the marked crosswalk, failing to keep a proper lookout, and “walking directly into the path of oncoming traffic.”
Handley also claims that if the Vernons did sustain injuries, they were “temporary” or the result of a “pre-existing condition or trauma,” and that the damages claimed are “exaggerated, excessive and remote.”
When reached for comment, Handley refused to discuss the lawsuit.
“That’s between me, my lawyer, and the people that were involved — not the public,” he told ThoroldToday. “That news is three years ago in December. Why would you report on it?”
ThoroldToday did not know about the lawsuit when it was initially filed in the summer of 2021. After receiving a tip last month, ThoroldToday retrieved the publicly available legal filings from the courthouse.
As part of its reporting, ThoroldToday also reached out to numerous independent experts for comment. Two personal injury lawyers who are not involved in the case agreed to read the court documents and provide context. Both said it’s important for the public to understand that at this stage, none of the accusations laid out in the filings have been proven.
“These allegations that are contained in the claim are just that: they are allegations,” says Joseph Campisi, a veteran lawyer at Campisi LLP and an adjunct professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School. “Nothing is proven until you proceed to a court of law, you have a trial, all the evidence comes out, and the trier of fact will make a decision.”
With motor vehicle accidents, it is typical for victims to lay out every potential allegation in their statements of claim “in an attempt to cover all the bases,” says Colton Leung, a personal injury lawyer at Iacobelli Law Firm.
“Generally speaking they are very generic, meaning that basically the plaintiff would plead all allegations in relation to the incident,” Leung says. “It’s a lot better to make sure all the allegations are pled within the statement of claim in the beginning or it may be problematic down the road.”
In that sense, the lawsuit against Handley is “very standard,” Campisi says. “You don’t know exactly what happened, so you make these allegations and then you move through the discovery process and then the case sort of narrows and becomes more focused.”
That process could take years to unfold, especially if the parties do not settle out of court. As for financial damages, many factors will come into play to determine a potential payout, including the severity of the injuries, potential loss of income, and medical and rehab bills.
If damages are ultimately awarded, Handley’s insurance provider would cover the cost — up to the limits of his policy. Although the court documents don’t disclose the amount of liability insurance he had, most auto policies in Ontario cover at least $1-million.
“Any excess claims will generally be placed on the individual,” Leung says. “For example, if the policy limits are $1-million and at trial a judgment of $1.5-million was entered, then the $1-million would be covered by the insurance company and the [$500,000] will be recoverable against the defendant personally.”
In other words, depending on Handley’s level of insurance coverage, he could be forced to pay out-of-pocket if the lawsuit doesn’t go his way.
“It would really depend on the gravity of the injuries,” Campisi says. “The more significant they are, the higher the damages. And there could be an issue if your policy limits are low and they don’t cover the damages.”
Handley, 61, works at Hydro One, where he is a representative on the Joint Health and Safety Committee. He has served 18 years on Thorold City Council.
Running for re-election on Oct. 24, Handley is once again campaigning as a champion for Thorold taxpayers. His slogan is: “Honesty. Accountability. Transparency.”
Known for his direct and sometimes combative style, he is popular among local voters. During the 2018 municipal election, 2,222 residents cast a ballot for Handley, the third-highest total among Thorold councillors.
He made headlines — both in Thorold and beyond — after a 2020 report from the Integrity Commissioner scolded him for his interaction with City Hall staff and fellow councillors. The report found his communications contained “criticism, disrespect, questioning of competence and, in some instances, unmistakable bullying.” As a result, Handley had his pay suspended for eight months.
In a recent pre-election interview, he said he just wants to put the whole affair behind him. “I’ve done my time,” he said. “It’s nothing to be discussed any further. The public knows what happened, it’s old news.”