The operator of one of the boats in a 2019 fatal crash involving a vessel driven by Linda O’Leary, wife of businessman and reality TV star Kevin O’Leary, was convicted in absentia last September of failing to exhibit a navigation light, according to provincial offence documents obtained by CBC News.
Richard Ruh of Orchard Park, N.Y., was charged after the Aug. 24, 2019, crash on Lake Joseph in the Muskoka region north of Toronto, which killed two people on the boat Ruh was in.
Linda O’Leary, who was driving the other boat, was charged with careless operation of a vessel under the Canada Shipping Act. Her trial is scheduled to start in June in Parry Sound, Ont.
The families of Gary Poltash, 64, from Florida, who died the night of the crash, and Susana Brito, 48, of Uxbridge, Ont., who died days later as a result of injuries sustained in the crash, have also filed civil suits.
Ruh originally opted to take his matter to trial, but in September 2020, he changed course.
“Rather than come back to Canada to have a lengthy trial and revisit some of the trauma that everybody experienced over this, he chose not to contest the matter, which does not mean that he pleaded guilty,” Ruh’s lawyer, Mark Sandler, said in an interview with CBC News.
Ruh submitted a letter to the Provincial Offences Office in Parry Sound withdrawing his intention to appear in court.
“As a result of the withdrawal of my notice, I understand that I will be deemed not to dispute the charge and that a justice may enter a conviction against me,” Ruh said in the letter dated Sept. 4, 2020.
Ruh acknowledged that he understood that the “conviction may be entered without the prosecution calling any evidence despite the fact that I will not be entering a guilty plea or participating in a trial on the merits.”
A conviction was entered Sept. 15, 2020, and Ruh was fined $150 plus a surcharge of $30.
Disagreement on whether conviction will play into O’Leary case
The collision regulations under the Canada Shipping Act require navigation lights to be turned on from sunset to sunrise when a boat is on the water and not anchored. The powerboat Ruh was driving was required to have an all-round white light or a masthead light and a stern light and sidelights on.
“The reality is if he were facing a serious charge, or a more serious charge, he’d have to exercise an option to plead guilty or not plead guilty,” Sandler said. “Evidence would be called and a determination would be made by a judge. But because this is a ticketed matter, he could choose not to contest it.”
Sandler said he doesn’t think the navigation light conviction will have any impact on the upcoming O’Leary trial or the civil lawsuits stemming from the crash.
“I don’t see the link between that charge and, ultimately, the cause of the accident. But that will be for others to determine,” Sandler said.
Other lawyers disagree.
Patrick Brown represents the family of Brito in one of the ongoing lawsuits and countersuits between the people who were on board, the drivers and owners of the boats. He expects Ruh’s conviction to help his client’s case.
“If the conviction is entered into in relation to failing to exhibit a stern light, then you couldn’t come into civil court and induce evidence to say that the light is on,” Brown said.
Brown said having a conviction on the books could help in other lawsuits.
“There is a presumption of liability to which then the defendant has to rebut in the civil case,” he said.
O’Leary lawyer not commenting
Ottawa-based criminal lawyer Michael Spratt, who is not involved in any of the litigation around the crash, said it will be hard to not see the conviction as an admission of guilt to a degree.
“It is slightly odd that someone would accept responsibility, in essence, but not plead guilty,” Spratt said. “By paying the ticket, that will be seen at both the civil and the careless-boating trial as an admission. That may change things.
“The fact that whether the boat that Miss O’Leary struck had navigational lights on is an important factor both in allocating responsibility and liability in the civil proceeding. But also a factor that can play into the careless-boating charge that Miss O’Leary is facing.”
Criminal lawyer Karen McArthur, who is also not involved in any of the litigation around the crash, says conviction without a guilty plea is rare and makes things a little “murky” for the related cases.
McArthur said by paying the fine but not admitting any liability in the letter, Ruh is banking on getting a little legal protection.
“A judge can’t simply say, ‘Well sir, you are, in fact, guilty because you checked that box off.’ A judge will have to stop and pause and consider it,” she said.
Even so, McArthur said, if O’Leary’s lawyer calls Ruh as a witness, he could use the conviction to shore up his client’s defence.
“Linda O’Leary’s lawyer would say … ‘You’ve admitted that your lights weren’t on. And how did you expect Linda O’Leary to see your boat, if your lights weren’t on?’ You’re a contributing factor to this, and therefore she ought to get the benefit of the doubt,” McArthur said.
In an email to CBC News, Brian Greenspan, the lawyer representing Linda O’Leary on the Shipping Act charges, said he will not be discussing specific issues or evidence before the trial.
The Public Prosecutions Service of Canada, which is prosecuting the case against Linda O’Leary, also declined comment.
WATCH | Sister of Suzana Brito says family is ‘in the dark’ about what happened in crash: