01/17/2013 04:30 EST | Updated 03/19/2013 05:12 EDT

B.C. Ferry Sinking Had Nothing To Do With Romance, Defence Says

A romantic affair between two crew members, one of whom was in charge of the Queen of the North ferry that sank off B.C.’s north coast seven years ago, had nothing to do with the sinking, defence lawyers told a court Thursday.

They said problems with navigational equipment and weather caused the ferry to slam into Gil Island on the night of March 22, 2006. Within an hour, the ship was completely under water, with all but two of the passengers and crew in lifeboats. Gerald Foisy and his common-law wife, Shirley Rosette, are believed to have gone down with the ship, but their bodies were never found.

Karl Lilgert has pleaded not guilty to two counts of criminal negligence causing death. His trial began Thursday in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver.

The Crown prosecutor claims the navigation officer was responsible for the crash, saying he had ample time to alter course.

Lilgert was the senior officer in charge, while the second officer was on a break. The captain had gone to bed for part of the 500-kilometre, 18-hour trip south from Prince Rupert, on B.C.’s mainland, to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.

Lead prosecutor Richard Wright told the jury on Thursday that Lilgert failed to take any kind of evasive manoeuvres and never made any contact with the captain, the engine room or anyone else prior to the crash.

But defence lawyer Glen Orris says his client is a professional mariner who was doing his job. Orris told the court that Lilgert should have had more help on the bridge and that his client never intended to cause injury.

A Transportation Safety Board investigation into the sinking determined Lilgert was on the bridge of the ferry with quartermaster Karen Bricker the night it sank.

The pair had recently ended a romantic relationship and it was their first shift alone together since the breakup. The report said the pair failed to make a crucial course correction and navigational warning systems were turned off.

On Thursday, both sides downplayed the significance of the conversation and any distraction it may have caused.

Bricker is expected to testify she and Lilgert only had a brief conversation in the moments before the sinking, the Crown said, and that their affair had ended weeks before the crash when she decided to stay with her husband.

The Crown plans to call 100 witnesses to the stand, including passengers, crew members, a coast guard officer who oversaw the rescue, and said evidence against Lilgert will take three months to present. BC Ferries has settled lawsuits with families of the victims as well as 45 other passengers.

Fourteen jurors, instead of the usual 12, were sworn in on Thursday due to the length of the trial – which is expected to last six months – and the potential that some jurors will not be able to sit through the entire proceeding.

Court was adjourned until Monday, Jan 21.

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