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Legal reprieve gives quadriplegic man a second chance

Dean Wardak, shown at his home in Mississauga, Ont., was paralyzed after driving into a tree while imtoxicated.

J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

The pictures show the tragic arc of Dean Wardak's story – in one, the youth is smiling with a friend at a party, the table loaded with alcohol. In the next, his devastated car is wrapped around a tree. Then he is in hospital, his paralyzed body kept alive by machines that his father was encouraged to have turned off.

But what they don't show is the unusual twist in his legal saga – in which the judge in his case persuaded the prosecutor and defence lawyer to take a different approach – that resulted in him getting a rare break in Peel Region, a jurisdiction known for taking a hard line on drinking and driving.

A conviction would have jeopardized insurance benefits needed for the care of the Mississauga teen, now 20, who was left a quadriplegic. And it would make it more difficult to take his message into schools, where he wants to give the PowerPoint presentation he laboriously tapped out, using one knuckle, on an iPad.

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"I was in the hospital, alone in that room with my thoughts, and I wondered how I could help others, stop them doing what I did," Mr. Wardak explained.

The legal reprieve has let him start getting on with his life. He is finding it easier to speak as he recovers from his injuries and said recently that he has been recruited as a backup presenter for a program called Prevent Alcohol and Risk-Related Trauma in Youth. He will take time this spring to work on his physiotherapy, but plans to return to school in the summer, perhaps for an accounting course that would help toward a career in business marketing.

A conviction "would have affected my ability to receive employment and possibly affect my ability to cross the international border," he said in an e-mail this week. "I'm now able to focus more on my rehab … without that worry always in the back of my mind. It has also made me determined to tell my story to others, especially young people."

The result is a long way from the 90-day jail term initially sought by the prosecution. Defence lawyer Shannon McPherson, who says her client had a blood-alcohol level of more than triple the legal limit, acknowledges a conviction would have been a "slam-dunk." But the looming consequences of that left her distraught. Seeing no other option, she was ready last year to resort to a guilty plea and a constitutional challenge on the grounds that it would be cruel and unusual punishment if he were deprived of insurance benefits.

Seeing the pain Ms. McPherson was in, Madam Justice Katherine McLeod of the Ontario Court of Justice adjourned without hearing the plea. Believing that there was a better way to resolve the case, she encouraged Ms. McPherson and Crown attorney Sean Doyle to find a solution.

The effort paid off. On Dec. 21, Mr. Doyle agreed to stay the charges – an unusual result in a jurisdiction where prosecutors have been so reluctant to negotiate that it earned the nickname "no-deal Peel."

Judge McLeod had praised counsel from the bench for reaching this solution and commended Mr. Wardak for his work to highlight the dangers of drunk driving. "The PowerPoint should be shown to every young person and old person alike," she said.

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Mr. Doyle said in court that Mr. Wardak's eagerness to persuade young people not to drink and drive was at the heart of the Crown's decision not to pursue a conviction. Outside court, he referred questions to the Ministry of the Attorney-General.

"In light of the catastrophic nature of the injuries sustained by the accused and his willingness to serve as an example to others in the community, the Crown exercised its discretion not to proceed with the charges," spokesman Jason Gennaro said in an e-mailed statement.

The decision allows Mr. Wardak to turn his attention forward, although he continues to suffer serious medical effects. The accident left him with so little function in all four limbs that he was classified a quadriplegic. He has regained some hand/arm function, but requires help bathing and eating. His cognitive ability was reduced by his injuries.

But it could have been worse. Ms. McPherson notes the effect of Section 30 of the Statutory Accidents Benefits Schedule. This stipulates that the insurer need not pay certain types of benefits if, at the time of the accident, a person "was engaged in an act for which the person is convicted of a criminal offence."

With the charges stayed, this did not apply to Mr. Wardak.

The crash in April, 2011, happened after the young man, then 18, attended a house party. Mr. Wardak said he does not know why he went to fetch his new car after drinking heavily just down the street from his house, has no idea where he was trying to go, and does not even remember getting into the vehicle. He has no recollection of the catastrophic crash that put him in a wheelchair.

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His blood-alcohol content was 0.270, according to his lawyer, way beyond the legal limit of 0.08.

After nearly dying – the teenager was admitted to hospital without vital signs and his father was encouraged to take him off life support – he rallied and began putting his life back together. Although the incident that changed his life is shrouded in haze, he knows he is lucky to have survived and is relieved he did not harm anyone else.

"I'm so glad I hurt only myself," he said. "I couldn't live with myself if anyone else was hurt."

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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