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Stationary Vehicle Partly At Fault for Rear End Crash For Failing to Engage Hazard Lights

Last week the BC Court of Appeal addressed fault for a crash between an impaired driver and a stationary vehicle.  In last week’s case (Hansen v. Sulyma)  the stationary vehicle had run out of gas and pulled off the roadway.   Shortly thereafter another motorist, who had been drinking in excess at a nearby pub, lost control and drove into the stationary vehicle.  While the Court found the impaired driver mostly at fault the driver of the stationary vehicle was also found party to blame.  In reaching this conclusion the BC Court of Appeal provided the following reasons:

[5]             When the Honda was a couple of kilometres away from the terminal, its engine “spluttered” and then stopped.  Mr. Sulyma steered it off the paved portion of the road and onto the shoulder.  He testified that they were stopped on a straight stretch.  He telephoned one of his sisters who lived on the Island and she agreed to bring gas to where the Honda was stranded.  Ms. Hansen phoned home to tell her son that she and Mr. Sulyma would not be back to Powell River until the next day.

[6]             While they were stopped, Ms. Hansen testified that she asked Mr. Sulyma to put on the car’s “flashers” or hazard lights, but he told her that was “silly”.  The lights were left off.  After a few minutes, Mr. Sulyma tried the ignition again and the car started.  He pulled out onto the road and they were able to drive a short distance, but the engine then spluttered and died again.  The trial judge accepted the testimony of both Mr. Sulyma and Ms. Hansen that he steered the vehicle onto the shoulder such that it was parked “entirely on the shoulder of the road, and no part of the vehicle was located on the paved portion of the roadway.”  (Para. 31.)  Although parts of Mr. Leprieur’s statements to the police were to the contrary, other portions of his statements led the trial judge to infer that he had had no memory of where the Honda had been parked.  The trial judge found that the car was “at what counsel have referred to as the ‘apex’ or middle point of a left-turning (for northbound traffic) curve in the highway.”  (Para. 35.)..

[17]         With respect to Mr. Sulyma, the trial judge was satisfied he had failed to meet the applicable standard of care by failing to activate the hazard lights on Ms. Hansen’s vehicle or otherwise illuminating lights that would have made the Honda more easily noticeable to drivers.  As for causation, the Court found this failure “caused or contributed to the collision” and that had the lights been on, Mr. Leprieur would likely have been alerted to the presence of the Honda earlier than he was.  The trial Judge continued:

… Even if Mr. Leprieur’s ability to react was slowed by the excessive amount of alcohol he had consumed and he was being inattentive, flashing lights would probably have caught his attention before the vehicle itself became visible.  An earlier warning of the presence of the Hansen vehicle would, I conclude, have allowed Mr. Leprieur time to stop accelerating or possibly even slow his vehicle, and thereby reduce the force of the impact and the severity of Ms. Hansen’s injuries.  [At para. 78; emphasis added.]

 …

[30]         Moving on to the question of standard of care, Ms. Wright contends that the standard imposed by the trial judge on Mr. Sulyma was “too high in law”.  She emphasizes that the Hansen car was parked off the paved portion of the road.  Can it be correct, she asks, to require a person in Mr. Sulyma’s position to have activated the hazard lights in order to avoid the risk posed by a driver who is drunk, speeding, and accelerating on a trajectory off onto the shoulder?  Ms. Wright observes that this is the first case of which she is aware in which the driver of a vehicle that is parked completely off the road has been held to be negligent for failing to put on his or her hazard lights.

[31]         Mr. Cowper responds ? correctly in my view ? that Ms. Wright’s objections are to the trial judge’s findings of fact rather than to any legal principle she applied.  The question in every case is whether the person has taken reasonable care in all the circumstances.  There is no rule of law to the effect that any driver who parks his car off the road may rest assured that he or she need not activate the vehicle’s hazard lights.  It all depends on the circumstances.  In this case, although the Honda was off the road, it was a dark and misty (if not foggy) night, the road was not illuminated, the car was in the apex of a curve, and Mr. Sulyma and Ms. Hansen were sitting in the vehicle.  As the Court stated in Thornhill v. Martineau (1987) 39 C.C.L.T 293 (B.C.S.C.), even though a vehicle is legally parked, it may create a danger which ought to be foreseen by its driver.

[32]         The trial judge in the case at bar implicitly concluded that it was reasonably foreseeable that a driver coming around the curve would swing wide ? a conclusion of fact that in my view has not been shown to be clearly wrong.  (It was not necessary in this regard to show that Mr. Sulyma ought to have foreseen that an intoxicated driver would speed around the curve.)  I note that this case is substantially different from that inCawson v. Quandt 2001 BCCA 210, where this court reversed a trial judge’s finding that a driver who had encountered deer on the road and, while remaining in the lane of traffic, had stopped his truck to let them cross, had been negligent in failing to turn on his hazard lights.  The trial judge had imposed 15% liability on the defendant for this reason, but the Court of Appeal allowed his appeal on the basis that the trial judge had imposed “an unreasonable standard imposing almost a warranty upon the defendant.”  (Para. 4.)  For purposes of the case at bar, it is important to note that the defendant in Cawson had his headlights and running lights on at all times (see para. 49 of the trial judge’s reasons; [1999] B.C.J. No. 1341).

[33]         In my opinion, this ground of appeal must fail.

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