01/17/2013 04:00 EST | Updated 01/17/2013 08:00 EST

Karl Lilgert On Trial For BC Ferry Queen Of The North Sinking

VANCOUVER - The crew member piloting a B.C. passenger ferry as it slammed into an island seven years ago, sinking and leaving two passengers missing, was alone on the bridge with his former lover for the first time since their relationship ended, a Crown lawyer told the opening of his trial Thursday.

Robert Wright detailed the affair as he described how Karl Lilgert, now on trial for criminal negligence, missed a crucial turn in the early hours of March 22, 2006, and then failed to take any evasive action before the ferry ran aground on Gil Island.

Wright didn't say how the affair fits into the Crown's theory about what happened that night. But he revealed that Lilgert's former lover, Karen Bricker, will take the witness stand to explain their failed relationship and recall what the pair talked about as the ferry sailed on a collision course toward a large island.

He said the couple had met in Prince Rupert weeks earlier and ended the affair after several months. Bricker had decided to stay with her spouse and buy a house with him, said Wright.

"She will tell you she was alone on the bridge with Mr. Lilgert, it was the first time alone together since their affair ended, that they had some conversation about the house purchase — but she will tell you that it was brief," Wright told the jury in his opening statement.

"She will tell you that they did not discuss that any further, nor elaborate on it. She will tell you they had no further conversation whatsoever. There was no discussion, no argument or anything of the like, according to Ms. Bricker."

The Queen of the North sank several hours after leaving the northern community of Prince Rupert en route to Port Hardy, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

A dramatic nighttime rescue saved the lives of 99 passengers and crew, who boarded rescue boats and fishing vessels before they were taken to safety in the tiny First Nations community of Hartley Bay. Two passengers, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, were never seen again.

Wright told the jury Lilgert missed a crucial left turn after entering a body of water known as Wright Sound, sailing for more than 20 minutes in a straight line toward Gil Island. He said evidence presented at trial will show Lilgert made no effort to steer the ferry clear of the island or even slow the ship down.

"We anticipate the evidence will establish a complete failure on the part of Mr. Lilgert to perform his duty to the passengers and his fellow crew members, which was to navigate the ship according to sound maritime practices," said Wright.

Lilgert sat in the courtroom wearing a grey sweater, his hair combed back with a salt-and-pepper goatee on his face. He sat at a table next to a member of his legal team, occasionally writing on a pad of yellow paper, as his son watched the proceedings from the courtroom gallery.

Lilgert's lawyer, Glen Orris, said his client's affair with Bricker was irrelevant.

"The relationship with Ms. Bricker, that's been a big deal I guess as far as the media is concerned," Orris told the jury.

"It had nothing to do with this. ... There is nothing of significance in this case to deal with that. It was over, it was done."

Instead, Orris said Lilgert's failure to turn the ferry was a mistake that wasn't of his own making. He was faced with poor weather, substandard navigational equipment, a lack of help on the bridge and inadequate company policies, said Orris.

It was, in short, the system's fault, he explained.

"We say that those shortcomings are what led to the sinking of the Queen of the North," said Orris.

Orris said experts in marine safety will testify that Lilgert, a deckhand whose primary roles included directing vehicles on and off the ferry, should have had more help on the bridge.

Lilgert was charged in March 2010, four years after the sinking, and has pleaded not guilty.

The trial is expected to last up to six months, hearing from dozens of witnesses including crew members, surviving passengers, fishermen who aided in the rescue and the families of Foisy and Rosette.

The expected length prompted the judge to take the unusual step of appointing 14 jurors instead of 12 to ensure any elimination of jurors does not result in a mistrial.

It is the first time a trial in B.C. has used additional jurors since federal legislation passed in 2011 allowing up to 14 to be selected. At the start of deliberations, if there are still more than 12 remaining, the additional jurors will be eliminated at random.

The sinking also triggered a class-action lawsuit, which BC Ferries settled in 2010 for $354,000, and was split between several dozen passengers and their lawyers.

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