ICBC loses case against kava-drinking driver

Insurer ordered to pay for replacement of SUV that was totalled when it slammed into Surrey restaurant.

Kava is a South Pacific plant and a tea-like drink is made from the root of the plant. It's described as having a calming effect on those who consume it

A judge has ruled the Insurance Corporation of B.C. (ICBC) must replace the vehicle of a man who crashed into a fast-food restaurant seven years ago.

According to a Sept. 3 B.C. Supreme Court decision, Mohammed Yusuf Venkataya, now 51, was visiting with friends on Oct. 12, 2008. The group of six talked, ate, watched TV and drank kava.

Kava is a South Pacific plant and a tea-like drink is made from the root of the plant. It is Fiji’s national drink and is often consumed at celebrations or ceremonies, though its use is not regulated in Canada, according to the court document.

Venkataya testified he was not feeling well the evening of the get-together and had a few bowls of fish soup, one bowl of kava and a cup of tea. He said he and friends had consumed kava for several decades and that he’d normally have it one or twice a month.

While driving home from his friend’s house after the get-together, Venkataya – a devout Muslim who does not smoke, drink or use any drugs – was about to turn right onto Scott Road from 88 Avenue. But that’s the last thing the driver remembered before being handcuffed and placed on the ground outside a Taco Time restaurant, where his vehicle had crashed into a building.

Two police officers were in the area and witnessed Venkataya’s collision. They said they saw the driver hit a meridian and saw the tires spinning as the engine accelerated on the temporarily stuck SUV. They then saw the car break free, whiz by them, hitting several poles, signs, trees, a light standard and fire hydrant before slamming into the restaurant. The driver suffered minor injuries, but vomited several times after the crash. The car was severely damaged.

The court heard Venkataya had a blood alcohol reading of zero and readily admitted to drinking kava, which HealthLinkBC describes as having a calming effect, “producing brain wave changes similar to changes that occur with calming medicines such as diazepam (Valium, for example).”

At trial, ICBC’s lawyers argued Venkataya was dishonest about how much kava he had consumed.

But Justice Peter Voith deemed Venkataya an “unusually direct” witness and believed his testimony.

ICBC also argued that kava is an intoxicating substance that would have placed Venkataya under the influence at the wheel. There was also suggestion that the driver having taken Benadryl the same day, either alone or in combination, could have rendered him impaired.

The judge, however, said ICBC failed to prove Venkataya was incapable of driving as a result of consuming a drug or intoxicating substance.

The whole of the evidence does not, on a balance of probabilities, satisfy that burden,” Voith said in his written decision.

ICBC was ordered to pay Venkataya the cost to replace his 2006 Nissan Armada, plus court costs.