Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Paralyzed man meets the driver who rear-ended him and accepts apology

Judge praises victim in tearful courtroom

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A guilty plea. A call for leniency. Many tears and the occasional laugh.

All of these occurred in the provincial court Wednesday where after almost three years, Neil Klippenstein met the driver who rear-ended him, paralyzing him from the neck down.

Klippenstein wasn't bitter. In fact, he said he was better as a result of the crash.

Klippenstein was a self-employed contractor before the accident that left him a quadriplegic. His greatest love was construction and he still enjoys driving by renovation sites to observe others' work.

There's much to see in his neighbourhood of Sage Creek, and Klippenstein said he enjoys the freedom his motorized wheelchair provides him for adventuring.

"I don't even know if I like the word handicapped because these are just my new legs," he said. "I can go 7 1/2 miles an hour and I'm enjoying it."

Klippenstein is under the full-time care of his wife, Sharon, who quit her job to help her husband after the accident. The couple depends on Manitoba Public Insurance to cover their expenses.

They have four kids, all in their 20s, and four grandchildren.

"A year after the accident, I walked my daughter down the aisle and lots of momentous events have happened since, like the birth of my grandson. My life, my cup is still half-full," he said in an interview.

Back in the courtroom, Crown attorney Mitch Lavitt explained the details of the crash.

The collision happened on Aug. 3, 2011 around 12:40 p.m. near the Royal Canadian Mint. Klippenstein was riding his Honda motorcycle northbound on Lagimodiere Boulevard and Gerard Bertrand was following in his Pontiac Grand Am.

Bertrand, then 26, had a spotless driving record. He hadn't been drinking alcohol or consuming drugs before getting behind the wheel. He wasn't using his cellphone in the car. But in a mere moment of inattention, his and Klippenstein's lives changed in seconds.

Though the lights at the intersection of Lagimodiere and Fermor Avenue were green, traffic was backed up to near Lagimodiere and East Mint Place, where the crash occurred.

Bertrand spotted the red brake lights of the truck in front of him, but didn't see Klippenstein's motorcycle tucked near the boulevard.

He hit Klippenstein's bike at 72 kilometres per hour, just below the speed limit of 80.

Klippenstein and his bike flew onto the boulevard and Bertrand's car rammed the vehicle in front of him, which in turn hit two more cars.

Looking back, Klippenstein was grateful not to have been sandwiched in the scrap metal. A devout Christian, Klippenstein said he believes God had a purpose for sparing his life.

"While this accident completely changed my physical and emotional reality, it is my faith that kept me focused through my recovery," Lavitt read from his client's victim-impact statement.

Near the end of the hour-long disposition, Bertrand turned from the witness stand facing judge Wanda Garreck to apologize directly to Klippenstein.

"I never meant to hurt you or your family. I can't imagine what it's done to your family," he said through tears. "I just want to tell you that I'm really sorry for everything."

Klippenstein accepted the apology.

Lavitt announced the Crown and defence had come to the agreement that a fine would be sufficient punishment for Bertrand, who was remorseful. The ultimate decision, however, was up to the court. Garreck said she had seen many people come to terms with awful situations such as the one presented, but perhaps none as graciously as Klippenstein.

"I think you've truly given everyone in this courtroom here today the ability to learn from your story of forgiveness," she said to the victim.

Garreck handed Bertrand a $1,000 fine, payable within six months, to cover court costs and damages.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 17, 2014 A4


Updated on Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 4:02 PM CDT: Clarifies Bertrand was driving a car.

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