Agony of Collision Doctrine Shields Driver From Fault Following Head on Crash
Update November 28, 2013 – the below decision was upheld by the BC Court of Appeal in reasons for judgement released today
I have previously discussed the ‘agony of collision’ doctrine which can shield a motorist from liability following a collision if they are faced with a sudden and unexpected hazard not of their making. Reasons for judgement were released last week by the BC Supreme Court, Kamloops Registry, demonstrating this doctrine in action.
In last week’s case (Brook v. Tod Estate) the Defendant Goodrick changed lanes when it was unsafe to do so. Her lane change resulted in a potential collision with a vehicle driven by the Defendant Tod who swerved away into the oncoming lane of traffic. The decision proved fatal with his vehicle striking the on-coming Plaintiff’s vehicle in a head-on collision. The Defendant Tod died in the crash and the Plaintiff sustained injuries.
The Plaintiff sued both Defendants. The Court found the Defendant Goodrick was negligent in making an unsafe lane change. The Defendant Tod, however, was found faultless for the “agonizing choice made…in the last two or three seconds of his life as he attempted to avoid an accident“. Mr. Justice Affleck provided the following reasons addressing ‘agony of collision’:
 Mr. Tod’s counsel stresses the law in relation to the agony of collision which would exonerate Mr. Tod of mistakes which he made in an emergency situation. In Van Zanten v. Bruhs, 1991 CanLII 1023 (BCSC), Mr. Justice A.G. Mackinnon referred to Carswell’s Manual of Motor Vehicle Law, Volume III, 3rd edition, at page 22, where there is a discussion of agony of collision. These words are found:
In a number of cases concerning what is commonly called ‘agony of the collision,’ it has been pointed out that a driver acting in an emergency created by another vehicle or by some extraneous fact cannot be expected to exercise nice judgment and prompt decision, and mere errors of judgment in such circumstances may often be excusable … Where an emergency arises, it is not necessary for a driver to possess extraordinary skill, presence of mind, poise or self-control, and his failure to act as an ordinary person in an emergency is not held to be negligence. He is not necessarily required to adopt the most prudent course and is entitled to a reasonable time, depending on the circumstances, to exercise his judgment as to what steps should be taken to avoid a collision [citations ommitted.]
 Counsel has submitted that it was Mr. Brook who faced the agony of collision and yet his evasive efforts, although fruitless, have not been characterized as negligence. On the other hand it is argued Mr. Tod had choices available to him and his circumstances cannot be properly characterized as the agony of collision. Notwithstanding the able arguments of Ms. Goodrick’s counsel, I do not agree that Mr. Tod did not face an agonizing choice with no time to make a considered decision. I have found Ms. Goodrick’s vehicle intruded into the fast lane already occupied by Mr. Tod’s vehicle. She began her lane change and simultaneously saw Mr. Tod’s vehicle overlapping hers by several feet. It was not realistic to expect Mr. Tod to make an instantaneous decision to accept a collision, no matter how minor it might in retrospect have been, with Ms. Goodrick’s vehicle. In the negligible time available to Mr. Tod, he cannot have been expected to weigh that fine calculation. It is true he could have braked. One difficulty with that proposition is that it cannot be now known if he both braked and swerved. What we do know from the evidence of Mr. Leggett is that Mr. Tod was travelling at a safe speed. He did not create the danger that caused him to react in the agony of the moment. If there had been a collision between his car and Ms. Goodrick’s car, we cannot know if one or both of those cars would have lost control leading to this accident.
 Mr. Garner for the plaintiff submits Mr. Tod had a higher standard of care imposed on him because Ms. Goodrick’s car had an “N” plate on the back indicating she was a novice driver. I doubt if the presence of that letter on a car changes the standard of care of other drivers, but in any event, Mr. Tod was driving with reasonable care before he was cut off by Ms. Goodrick’s failure to see his car before beginning her lane change. It is not open to this Court to criticize the agonizing choice made by Mr. Tod in the last two or three seconds of his life as he attempted to avoid an accident which I find was caused solely by the negligence of the defendant, Ms. Goodrick.