ICBC Injury Claims and the "Volenti" Defence

Volenti Non Fit Injuria is a Latin phrase which generally means that a plaintiff cannot sue a defendant where the Plaintiff has consented to or willingly accepted the risk of harm.   The Volenti Doctrine, when used successfully, can be a complete defence to a personal injury lawsuit.
The Volenti defence has been raised many times in ICBC Injury Claims where a passenger rides with a knowingly impaired driver who then loses control and injures the passenger.  Our Courts have severely limited the effectiveness of this defence over the years and reasons for judgement were released today demonstrating the difficulty is successfully arguing this defence.
In today’s case (Shariatmadari v. Ahmadi) the Plaintiff was severely injured when the driver of her vehicle lost control in Stanley Park, left the roadway and hit a tree.  The Defendant was drinking prior to losing control.  The claim went to Jury Trial and ICBC, on behalf of the Defendant, tried to raise the Volenti Defence.
Madam Justice Fenlon refused to put the defence to the jury finding that the evidence required for the defence to succeed was not present in the case at hand.  In coming to this conclusion she summarize the Volenti Defence in impaired driving cases and applied it as follows:

[3] The third party, Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (“ICBC”), who is defending this case on behalf of the deceased driver, wished to lead evidence of excessive drinking by the plaintiff, defendant, and mutual friends several nights a week for some time prior to the accident. ICBC also sought to lead evidence of the plaintiff occasionally driving following such evenings or letting the defendant drive her vehicle. They argued that this evidence, in conjunction with the fact that the plaintiff and defendant had a close personal relationship and were both driving impaired before the accident, will support a finding by the jury of a tacit agreement between the parties to assume any risk that might arise in relation to such driving – a finding which would support the defence of volenti non fit injuria.

[4] Counsel for the plaintiff offered to have the plaintiff testify on a voir dire to permit counsel for ICBC to argue the appropriateness of putting the volenti defence to the jury based on the actual evidence that could be elicited from the plaintiff. The third party was of the view, with which I agreed, that they could argue the appropriateness of putting the defence ofvolenti non fit injuria to the jury based on their “best case scenario”. I heard argument on that basis.

[5] Counsel for ICBC candidly acknowledged that in cases involving a plaintiff riding with an impaired driver, volenti is a difficult defence to prove in light of recent cases on the issue. In Hall v. Hebert, [1993] 2 S.C.R. 159 at 207, 101 D.L.R. (4th) 129, Cory J. in concurring reasons noted that the maxim volenti non fit injuria “stands for the proposition that no injury is done to one who consents.”  He stated the following at 207-208:

In order for the doctrine of volenti to apply, there must be either an express or implied assumption of the risk of the activity which caused the damage. That is to say, both parties to the activity must have agreed that they would participate in it regardless of the risk of injury and give up their right to sue should injury occur as a result of the agreed upon activity. It must be observed that the consent goes to the legal as opposed to the physical risk of harm (see Lehnert v. Stein, [1963] S.C.R. 38).

The volenti defence acts as a complete bar to recovery. Although it has not been the subject of legislation, it has been very severely limited in its application. Perhaps the judicial limitation was well merited in light of the harsh academic criticism of the defence. See Prosser, supra, at p. 454. Before it can operate as a defence, the plaintiff must not only consent to accept the risk of harm but also must bargain away his or her right to sue for injuries that may result from the dangerous activity. The doctrine will only be applied where it can truly be said that there is an understanding on the part of both parties that the defendant assumed no responsibility to take care for the safety of the plaintiff and the plaintiff did not expect him or her to do so. Clearly, the volenti defence will only be applicable in a narrow range of cases.

[6] In Joe v. Paradis, 2008 BCCA 57, 290 D.L.R. (4th) 556, the plaintiff had persuaded the defendant to drive him to a pub to obtain beer. Both parties were heavily intoxicated and the defendant drove off the road, injuring the plaintiff. The plaintiff’s action for damages was dismissed by a jury on the basis of the volenti defence. The issue before the British Columbia Court of Appeal was whether the defence of volenti non fit injuria should have been put to the jury. At para. 13, Mackenzie J.A. writing for the Court said:

[13]      There is no evidence of any express agreement between Mr. Joe and Mr. Paradis to absolve the latter from legal liability for negligent driving. The first issue is whether there was evidence from which a properly instructed jury could find an implied agreement to that effect. The first and third issues are inter-related: if there was no evidence to support the defence, the jury verdict is unsupported by evidence and therefore perverse.

[7] He noted further at paras. 16-22:

[16]      Commentators are generally critical of the volenti doctrine, particularly its application to passengers in motor vehicle accident cases: see, for example, G.H.L. Fridman,The Law of Torts in Canada, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Carswell, 2002); Allen M. Linden and Bruce Feldthusen, Canadian Tort Law, 8th ed. (Markham, Ont.: Butterworths, 2002); Lewis N. Klar, Tort Law, 3rd ed. (Toronto: Carswell, 2003); John G. Fleming, The Law of Torts, 9th ed. (Sydney: LBC Information Services, 1998); and Clerk & Lindsell on Torts, 19th ed. (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 2006). Clerk & Lindsell on Torts points out that volenti’s complete bar to recovery is inconsistent with comparative negligence statutes which allow the apportionment of responsibility and “a more finely adjusted justice between parties” (at §3-103). Professor Klar observes that the nominal standard of an implied waiver of legal liability will rarely be met, if taken seriously. He adds: “It is not realistic to impose this implied agreement upon parties who are frequently unaware of the legal niceties surrounding these types of events, and who are not deliberating upon the physical or legal risks of dangerous conduct” (at 482). It would be hard to find parties who better fit Professor Klar’s description than Mr. Joe and Mr. Paradis.

[20]      Interjecting the volenti defence short circuits the process and invites the jury to use the defence as a subterfuge to assign all responsibility for the accident to Mr. Joe notwithstanding that the theoretical basis of the doctrine, an implied agreement to waive legal liability, may be unsupported by the evidence. Unless the courts are prepared to condone the manipulation of the volenti doctrine to avoid the comparative fault regime of the Negligence Act, volenti should not be invoked unless there is evidence that the parties put their minds to the question of legal liability and expressly or tacitly made an agreement to waive liability that could be supported on basic contract law principles.

[21]      The weight of Supreme Court of Canada jurisprudence and the critical commentaries support restricting the doctrine to cases where an agreement can be supported by the evidence. This case was not one of them.

[22]      The question left with the jury failed to clearly distinguish between the physical and legal risk of harm. The judge’s charge attempted to explain the distinction, but essentially in a vacuum as to evidence supporting acceptance of the legal risk of injury in contrast to the physical risk. Voluntary acceptance of the physical risk without acceptance of the legal risk is a contributory negligence issue and not volenti. [Emphasis added]

[8] In my view, even assuming the defendant’s best case scenario on the evidence elicited at trial, there is no evidence to support the plaintiff’s waiver of her legal right to sue for injuries, as distinct from evidence to support a willingness to assume the risk of injury itself. There is no evidence that the plaintiff and defendant turned their minds to the question of legal liability, and either expressly or tacitly made an agreement to waive liability that could be supported on basic contract law principles.

[9] In conclusion on this point, there is no evidence to support the defence of volenti; therefore that defence should not be put to the jury.

The Court did, however, go on to permit the Jury to hear evidence of the Plaintiff’s level of intoxication finding that “ here the evidence establishes that the plaintiff and defendant were together drinking over the evening and consuming roughly the same number of drinks (the evidence in this case), the level of the plaintiff’s intoxication is also relevant to her awareness of how intoxicated the defendant was at the time she let him drive her car.”.  Madam Justice Fenlon held this evidence was relevant in deciding whether the Plaintiff was ‘contributorily negligent‘ for riding as a passenger with a driver who had been drinking.

contributory negligence, icbc injury claims, impaired driving, Madam Justice Fenlon, shariatmadari v. ahmadi, volenti defence, volenti non fit injuria

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ERIK
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Personal Injury Lawyer

When not writing the BC Injury Law Blog, Erik is the managing partner at MacIsaac & Company, based in Victoria, B.C. He is also involved with combative sports regulatory issues and authors the Combat Sports Law Blog.

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