One October morning last year, Andrew Cawse glanced at the news channel playing on the TV in his office cafeteria, and experienced a flash of worry familiar to any parent.
The story on the screen said a cyclist had been struck in Toronto’s east end. The collision looked serious.
For an instant, Andrew wondered about his daughter Julia, then 23, who lived in the Beach and rode her bike everywhere.
“I hope Julia’s alright,” he remembers thinking, before dismissing the worry as an overreaction
But his fear wasn’t misguided.
As Andrew would soon learn, just after 7 a.m. on Oct. 4, 2018, Julia Cawse was run over by a 29-year-old man in a Jeep who drove into the bike lane on Dundas Street East where she was riding.
In that instant, the promising future Julia had was permanently derailed. She survived, but suffered catastrophic injuries. The young woman who was once energetic and athletic now lacks full use of her limbs, is cognitively impaired, and requires round-the-clock care.
Her parents in turn are facing a lifetime of medical bills they’re not sure how they’ll afford, and must live with the pain of knowing their daughter’s life was violently altered by a stranger’s momentary inattention.
The driver lives with different consequences. On Aug. 22, he pleaded guilty to a new non-criminal offence of careless driving causing bodily harm or death, a charge the provincial government introduced to stiffen penalties for drivers in cases such as Julia’s.
While the potential penalties include jail time and punitive fines, the driver, who was behind the wheel of his girlfriend’s car at the time, instead had his licence suspended for four years. Experts say it’s a meaningful penalty, but for this driver it was also a familiar one — court records show he had a previous conviction for driving with a suspended licence.
Government statistics show many drivers charged under the new offence have faced none of the stricter penalties afforded by the legislation.
“In the context of the new legislation, it seemed very inadequate,” Andrew said of the sentence for the man who almost killed his daughter.
The driver will be allowed back behind the wheel in a few years. Julia’s anguish will last longer than that, and Andrew says that for those who love her, “everything is turned upside down.”
Julia grew up in Oakville, Ont. Friends who knew her then describe her as energetic and social.
“She was just bursting with enthusiasm. She loved dancing. She was very outgoing,” said Rachel Wolf, 24, who met Julia in third grade and became her close friend.
Wolf remembers the Cawse house, with its trampoline in the backyard, was the social hub for her and other neighbourhood kids.
Julia was popular in school, but Wolf said she was wasn’t the stereotypical “mean girl.”
Wolf was less outgoing than her friend. “I kind of floated under the radar,” she said. But Julia would always invite her to parties and other events, even if she knew Wolf wouldn’t want to come.
“She included everyone,” Wolf said.
Julia played volleyball, soccer and basketball in high school. She kept up the habit in Toronto, where she attended Ryerson University’s early childhood studies program, and spent four or five nights a week playing in recreational sports leagues. She graduated in 2017, and her family says she was considering becoming a counsellor.
On the morning of Oct. 4, 2018, Julia was riding from her boyfriend’s house in the Fort York area to the home of a family in the Beach where she was living and working as a nanny for two young girls while she figured out her next steps in life.
According to an agreed-upon statement of facts provincial prosecutor Jamie MacPherson read into court at the driver’s sentencing, the roads were wet that morning. Julia and the driver of the black Jeep Wrangler, a North York resident named Kashayar Teymouri, were both headed east on Dundas Street, approaching Carlaw Avenue.
Just after Logan Street the painted bike lane on Dundas bends to the left to avoid a row of curbside parking spaces. Julia adjusted her route to follow the bike lane, but “Mr. Teymouri in his Jeep did not,” said MacPherson, according to a transcript of the proceeding.
The Jeep entered the bike lane and its bumper struck Julia’s rear tire. She was thrown off her bike, hit a parked car and fell into the roadway beneath the passenger side of the moving Jeep.
The impact was devastating. It fractured her skull, ribs, collar bone, femur, and broke her jaw in two places. She sustained a punctured lung, liver damage, brain hemorrhaging, and arterial dissections that caused multiple strokes. She would remain in a coma for weeks.
Why Teymouri hit Julia isn’t known. Det. Const. Scott Matthews, who spoke to Teymouri hours after the crash, told the Star he gave police “a 10-minute statement full of ‘I don’t knows.’” Teymouri also didn’t explain in court what happened.
According to the statement of facts, after he struck Julia, Teymouri stopped in a nearby parking lot. Police initially told media he was among the people who called 911 to report the incident.
In court, MacPherson said that Teymouri’s conduct “screams out for denunciation,” but a monetary fine wouldn’t have the desired deterrent effect in his case.
She and Teymouri’s lawyer made a joint submission asking his licence be suspended for four years, one less than the maximum allowed. Justice of the Peace Odida Quamina agreed.
MacPherson told the court that in making her submission she took into account Teymouri’s driving record, which she said showed only one minor speeding offence.
However, court records show that in addition to a getting a speeding ticket in 2017 for driving 69 km/h in a 50 km/h zone, Teymouri was convicted of driving with a suspended licence in 2014. The charge was laid when he was caught disobeying a no-turn sign at Dundas and Yonge streets.
The records don’t show any prior offence that would explain why his licence was suspended at the time. Teymouri told the Star it was a result of an unpaid parking ticket.
Julia’s loved ones say the sentence is inadequate, particularly because Teymouri wasn’t driving his own car at the time of the crash. They say if he doesn’t own a car then a licence suspension is little punishment.
“They had choices of fines or jail times. And it seemed to us a licence suspension for this person, or a licence suspension in general, seemed inadequate given the facts and the results of his actions,” Andrew said.
Brian Gray, a spokesperson for the Ontario minister of the attorney general, wouldn’t comment on why the prosecutor didn’t appear to take into account Teymouri’s previous licence suspension in her sentence submission for Julia’s case. He said in general, “prosecutors will make submissions to the court based on the facts of the case, the relevant case law and sentencing principles as set out in the Highway Traffic Act.”
In a brief interview on the doorstep of his home and in a series of text messages afterwards, Teymouri, now 30, said he could offer no explanation for why he hit Julia.
“I just did not see her. I have no idea why. It’s my first accident ever,” he said.
He said he wasn’t on his phone or otherwise distracted at the time, and argued the city could have prevented the crash by installing separated bike lanes.
According to Teymouri, the year since the collision has been difficult for him. He said he’s been unable to work, and his relationship ended.
He said he’s “sorry for what (Julia’s) family is going through.”
“It has been very tragic for them and also for me,” he said.
“I know what happened to her. It’s gone. I can’t go back in time and make that not happen,” he said.
Teymouri was among the first drivers to be charged under a new law introduced two years ago by the former Ontario Liberal government.
The legislation added a non-criminal offence of careless driving causing bodily harm or death to the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, in addition to the existing offence of careless driving.
The goal was to mete out harsher punishment for drivers who injure or kill other road users through carelessness, but whose conduct doesn’t rise to the level that merits a criminal charge.
If convicted under the new law, which has been promoted by the new Progressive Conservative government and went into effect on Sept. 1, 2018, drivers can be sentenced to up to two years in jail, or fined up to $50,000. Their licence can also be suspended for up to five years.
The pre-existing offence of careless driving comes with less severe penalties of up to six months in jail, a maximum fine of $2,000, or a licence suspension of no more than two years.
Between January and August this year, Ontario courts disposed of 27 charges under the new offence, according to statistics provided by the attorney general. At the time there were still hundreds more charges working their way through the system.
But of the 27 that have reached a conclusion with or without a trial, a majority, 18, resulted in no conviction, and two more resulted in probation. Six resulted in fines and one, apparently the Teymouri case, resulted in an unspecified other outcome.
The ministry didn’t disclose the dollar amount of the fines that have been laid.
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While it’s still early, at least one expert says the outcomes to date are indication the new law isn’t working as intended.
Lawyer and road safety advocate Patrick Brown predicted when the law was introduced that while the new penalties sounded harsh, the maximums would hardly ever be applied because drivers could merely plead guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence, or plead to a lesser offence.
Brown said the early numbers appear to bear that prediction out.
“Very few if any consequences are coming out of careless driving charges,” he said.
Brown is among those pushing for the province to enact a so-called “vulnerable road user law” that would set mandatory minimum sentences like licence suspensions and community service for any driver who injures or kills someone through non-criminal behaviour.
Brown said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the Teymouri case, but noted it was rare for courts to impose licence suspensions.
“Licence suspensions are meaningful penalties because it removes that person from being able to drive for four years and (compels them to) reflect on the consequences of what they did,” he said.
Andrew Cawse sees it differently. He wonders what it would take for the courts to impose anything close to the maximum sentence if his daughter’s injuries weren’t enough.
“I’m not sure what it would take for the new legislation to be used to impose stiffer sentences,” he said.
He doesn’t believe Teymouri deserves to have his life ruined.
But he thinks harsher penalties might make people drive with more care.
“(Tougher) sanctions would raise the profile and raise people’s awareness of the consequences of distracted driving,” he said.
He also said that painted bike lanes like the kind Julia was riding in and which are the most common form of cycling infrastructure in Toronto, provide merely “the illusion of safety.”
Callum Elder, a spokesperson for the ministry of transportation, defended the new law, saying it responds to “concerns that previous penalties did not adequately address the severity of careless driving offences when death or bodily harm is caused.”
He said the ministry will “continue to monitor the effectiveness” of the charge, and is “always exploring options to improve vulnerable road user safety.”
After six months in St. Michael’s Hospital and another four months at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, Julia is now temporarily living with her parents in a midtown Toronto apartment while they make more permanent arrangements.
Her father still works as a financial policy adviser, but Julia’s mother has given up her career as a chartered accountant to look after her.
At the time of the crash, the provincial government had set the maximum insurance payment for catastrophic automobile injuries at $1 million. Andrew said that limits the amount the family can receive through their and the Jeep owner’s insurers to $2 million. Doctors have estimated it could cost $8 million to give Julia the care she needs over the course of her life.
The Cawses have sold their Oakville home to free up some money, and bought a smaller house with accessible features in Burlington, where they plan to move Julia.
To help the family, Wolf and other friends on “Team Julia” have set up a GoFundMe account. As of Thursday, it had raised more than $120,000 from about 800 donors.
“It just shows how loved she is by everybody,” Wolf said.
People who know Julia says she is resilient. But they also say she’s struggling to come to terms with the new circumstances of her life.
“She’s a very strong person. But she is severely traumatized and depressed,” Andrew said. (He said Julia didn’t want to be interviewed herself for this article).
She’s unable to roll over in bed, go to the bathroom, or even scratch her nose without help. Her father said while she can still talk and laugh, she has difficulty with abstract concepts, and rarely initiates conversations anymore.
“She’s certainly not the woman she used to be,” he said, but he stressed that she is “exhibiting tremendous courage and spirit” in the face of her ordeal.
Wolf, who still makes the trip to Toronto from Oakville to visit Julia every week, said, “I would be lying if I said she was any semblance of happy.”
Wolf acknowledged that in darker moments, Julia wishes she had died in the crash.
“I know that at times, I think she’s kind of wished that that had been the outcome,” Wolf said.
She said she’s encouraged by even the smallest improvements Julia has made, like being able to lower her arm to pet her dog, and help write a birthday card for her dad.
“People with disabilities can live super full lives,” Wolf said, but “I think that’s very hard for her to see at the moment.”
Among the wide circle of people who have been devastated by Julia’s crash is her boyfriend, Paul Robinson.
The pair met through an online dating app, although Robinson, 32, jokes they had “a whole made-up story not to tell people we met on Bumble.”
The couple had been dating for only about 10 months at the time of the collision. He said after Julia got hurt, her parents told him “you can leave and we’re not going to think any less of you.”
But in the months following the crash he spent time with her nearly every day, and still visits her at least twice a week.
Robinson said he’s trying to focus not on the future but on the aspects of the situation he can control, which for now is being there for Julia and her family.
“I’m still her boyfriend … and she’s still an amazing person in so many ways,” he said.
“I’m lucky because (when I visit) she’s so happy to see me she gives me the brightest face she can put on … She laughs at my jokes and tells me how happy she is that I’m there and how much she loves me. But she’s in pain constantly. She’s frustrated because she can’t move.”
In a searing victim impact statement Robinson read in court, he predicted that years from now Teymouri will have moved on and found a way to enjoy life.
“I can only hope during these moments you can take a pause and think about the life you destroyed, the family you destroyed,” Robinson said as Teymouri stood nearby.
“Because in her current state, whatever meal (you’re) enjoying that night, someone will have to feed Julia her meal because she can’t do it herself. Someone will have to lift Julia’s drink for her when they go to cheers. Someone will have to wipe her mouth when food gets down the side. Your carelessness resulted in this and you have no right to ever forget it.”