04/02/2014 10:23 EDT | Updated 06/02/2014 05:59 EDT

Moose collision lawsuit in Newfoundland alleges province was negligent

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - A class-action lawsuit started Wednesday in St. John's, N.L., with emotional testimony from plaintiffs who said moose-vehicle crashes on provincial roads have devastated them.

"I never had time to respond," said Ben Bellows, 57, of a 2003 accident that left him a quadriplegic.

He sat in a wheelchair as he testified in provincial Supreme Court. The case alleges the province has negligently failed to manage the moose population. It involves 135 plaintiffs — including at least 15 estates of those who died — who were involved in accidents dating back to 2001.

The class was limited to injuries that required hospital admission. Plaintiffs are claiming unspecified damages as they seek to prove the province is liable for not doing more to limit risks created after the government introduced moose, a non-native species, to the island of Newfoundland more than a century ago.

Bellows said it was a beautiful summer night on July 10, 2003, as he drove northwest from St. John's on the Trans-Canada Highway. He said he was about 10 kilometres west of Clarenville at about 8:30 p.m. when a moose sprang in front of him from thick alder bushes growing along the shoulder.

"It was so fast."

Bellows said outside court that he was driving a four-door Plymouth Acclaim sedan at about 90 kilometres per hour on impact.

Ches Crosbie, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, told court that the provincial government has known for at least 10 years that moose are a highway hazard but did not decide on a specific policy to cut that risk.

"The question is, what have they done about it?"

The public has a right to use the Trans-Canada Highway and other routes safely and unobstructed, Crosbie stressed. Yet virtually everyone on the island knows somebody who has had a collision, he said.

About 800 accidents or close calls have been recorded annually in recent years.

Bellows said outside court that he wants the province to reduce incidents by half over the next five years using more moose fencing and other measures.

The government has expressed condolences to victims in the past but has said it has acted.

Past measures include limited moose fencing, highway motion detection devices, roadside brush cutting and public education efforts.

Lawyer Peter Ralph, representing the province, declined to comment outside court.

Proceedings started with Jennifer Pilgrim, who testified that her husband, Roy, died instantly of massive head injuries when his car struck a moose March 11, 2009. The father of three was getting on the Trans-Canada Highway near Bishop's Falls in central Newfoundland when a moose ran on to the road, she said.

The following day was her birthday and the couple was to celebrate their 40th anniversary in June of that year, Pilgrim said.

She said outside court that she wants the province to install moose fencing along highways across the province.

"I know they can't do it all at once but if they do so much each year ... because I wouldn't want to see another family go through this."

Crosbie argues in an unproven statement of claim that moose are a public nuisance that the government introduced and then negligently failed to control.

Adult moose weigh between 360 and 450 kilograms or 800 to 1,000 pounds.

Collisions with the long-legged and top-heavy animals can be devastating at highway speeds of 70 to 110 km/h, says the statement of claim.

"A car's bumper and front grill typically will break the moose's legs, causing the body of the moose to clear the car's hood and deliver the bulk of the body weight into the windshield, crushing the windshield, front roof beams and anyone in the front seats."