Tag: headlights

Motorist At Fault for Failing to Have Headlights On Prior to Sunset


In British Columbia motorist’s obligations to turn headlights on are set out in section 4.01 of the Motor Vehicle Act Regulations.  This section state that :

4.01 A person who drives or operates a vehicle on a highway must illuminate the lamps required by this Division

(a)  from 1/2 hour after sunset to 1/2 hour before sunrise, and

(b)  at any other time when, due to insufficient light or unfavourable atmospheric conditions, objects on the highway are not clearly discernible at a distance of 150 m.

Reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Supreme Court considering this section and determining whether a motorist can be partially at fault for a crash for failing to have their lights on prior to sunset.

In today’s case (Schurmann v. Hoch) the Plaintiff was involved in a two vehicle collision.  He was leaving a stop sign and attempting to turn left at an intersection when the Defendant, approaching from the Plaintiff’s left, struck the Plaintiff’s vehicle.   The Defendant was the ‘dominant‘ driver and had the right of way.  The Plaintiff was found at fault for leaving a stop sign when it was unsafe to do so.  However the Court was also asked to determine if the Defendant was partially at fault.

At the time of the crash it was a few minutes prior to sunset.  The lighting conditions “posed visual problems for a person attempting to turn left“.  The Defendant was driving a dark pick-up truck and did not put on his vehicle’s running lights or headlights.   The Defendant was found 50% at fault for this failure.  In arriving at this decision Madam Justice Maisonville provided the following reasons:

[44]         I conclude, however, on the facts before the court that the defendant, driving a dark navy pickup truck without running lights or headlights in effect at approximately less than five minutes before sunset in conditions where there were clouds and it had commenced spitting and light raining, was negligent and failed to act reasonably in all of the circumstances by not putting on the running lights and headlights of his vehicle to make himself visible to other motorists.

[45]         I find that the defendant by failing to have his running lights on was negligent. His actions created an objectively unreasonable risk of harm. The defendant argues that he was in compliance with the statute insofar as it was not necessary to have the lights of his vehicle on as it was not yet sunset. I find however that section 4.01(a) of the Regulations speaks to ideal weather conditions, not conditions as they existed on the afternoon and early dusk of January 10, 2006. Those were cloudy conditions in circumstances where it had just begun to rain. Accordingly this situation was governed by s. 4.01(b) of the Regulations.

[46]         In considering the issue of the impact of breach of a statute, Dickson J., as he then was, held at page 225:

Breach of statute, where it has an effect upon civil liability, should be considered in the context of the general law of negligence. Negligence and its common law duty of care have become pervasive enough to serve the purpose invoked for the existence of the action for statutory breach: see Canada v. Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, [1983] 1 S.C.R. 205.

[47]         It must not be forgotten that the other elements of tortious responsibility equally apply to situations involving statutory breach, i.e. principles of causation and damages. To be relevant at all, the statutory breach must have caused the damage of which the plaintiff complains. Should this be so, the violation of the statute should be evidence of negligence on the part of the defendant (see Saskatchewan Wheat Pool).

[48]         The defendant submitted to the court that in order to find negligence one must first find a breach of the statute. I am mindful of the comments of Dickson J. Other elements of tortious responsibility equally apply – it is not necessary to find breach or for that matter compliance with a statute to find actions that created an objectively unreasonable risk of harm…

50] In this case, but for the defendant not having his running or head lights on, the plaintiff would have seen him, and would not have attempted the turn. The defendant thus breached the duty of care he owed to the plaintiff causing the plaintiff the unforeseen risk of injury ? and he did in fact suffer injury.

Driver Found at Fault for Crash for Having High Beams On – Psychological Injuries Discussed

Interesting reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Supreme Court, Victoria Registry, dealing with the issue of fault in a BC Car Crash, specifically if a driver could be found at fault for having high beams on making it difficult for other motorists to see.
In today’s case (Scott v. Erickson) the Plaintiff was injured when she drove her vehicle off a road and over an embankment in southeastern British Columbia.  Before losing control the Plaintiff was driving a pick up truck Southbound on the highway.  At the same time the Defendant was driving Northbound on the same highway and crossed the road to stop at the community mailboxes in a pullout adjacent to the southound lane.  While retrieving his mail his SUV was off the road to the right of the Plaintiff’s lane of travel.
The Defendant’s vehicle was facing the Plaintiff’s with its high-beams on.  The Plaintiff thought the Defendant’s vehicle was in the oncoming lane so she tried to keep to the right of the Defendant’s vehicle.  Of course there was nothing but an embankment to the right of the Defendant’s vehicle and the Plaintiff’s vehicle flipped down into the ditch. Mr. Justice Smith found the Defendant 100% at fault for this collision.  In coming to this conclusion Mr. Justice Smith reasoned as follows:

The question is whether the defendant was in breach of the common law duty of care that he owed to other drivers in the circumstances. It is trite law that, apart from specific statutory provisions, every operator of a motor vehicle owes a common law duty to take reasonable care for the safety other users of the highway.  What constitutes reasonable care in a given case depends on what is reasonable in the circumstances.

[25] Those circumstances included the fact that, although he was not parked on the roadway, the defendant knew or should have known that he was close enough to it that his headlights to be visible to oncoming traffic. He also knew or should have known that there were no streetlights or other sources of light that would help oncoming drivers determine the position of his vehicle.

[26] In those circumstances, it was reasonably foreseeable that an approaching driver seeing the defendant’s headlights would assume they were the lights of an oncoming vehicle in the northbound lane and would attempt to ensure that she stayed to the right of that vehicle….

I find that if the defendant had properly turned his mind to the potential hazard he was creating, the proper course would have been to turn off his headlights. If the absence of light from his headlights would have made it more difficult for the defendant to find and open his mailbox, that problem could have been solved with the simple use of a small flashlight.

[29] The hazard created by the defendant in stopping as he did was aggravated by the fact his lights were on high beam, further interfering with the ability of the plaintiff to properly see and assess the situation…

I find that, by leaving his lights on high beam, the defendant was in further breach of his common law duty of care. Whether or not he was stopped on a portion of the highway, the defendant clearly knew or ought to have known that he was stopped close enough to the travelled road surface that his headlights would be shining toward oncoming drivers and the vision of those drivers could be impaired if the lights were on high beam.

[33] I therefore conclude that, in stopping his car in the position he did with his headlights not only illuminated but on high beam, the defendant breached his duty of care.

In addition to the rather unique circumstances of liability, this case is worth reviewing for the Court’s discussion of quantum of damages.

Mr. Justice Smith found that the Plaintiff suffered from fairly “minor” physical injuries.  Despite this she went on to suffer from various cognitive difficulties.

The Plaintiff alleged these were due to a brain injury.  Mr. Justice Smith concluded that no brain injury occured in the crash, instead the Plaintiff’s cognitive difficulties were due to a ‘psychological response‘ to the accident.  In valuing the Plaintiff’s non-pecuniary damages (money for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life) at $85,000 Mr. Justice Smith noted that while a brain injury did not occur, brain injury precedents were useful guides in valuing the Plaintiff’s loss as her diminished functioning mirrored post concussive symptoms in many ways.  Specifically Mr. Justice Smith noted as follows:

[107]     The plaintiff has suffered a persistent psychological reaction to her accident, which has clearly affected her ability to function as she once did in both social and professional settings. She has difficulties with memory and concentration, has difficulty functioning in groups and has suffers from a lack of energy and confidence. She is, in important respects, no longer the person she was and is unable to enjoy most aspects of life as she previously did. However, I have found that she does not have any organic brain injury and her condition is more likely than not to be treatable with the proper interventions.

[108]     Although I did not find the plaintiff to have mild traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder, the impact that her psychological condition has had on her life is in many ways similar to what is seen in cases involving those conditions. Those cases therefore can provide some useful guidance in assessing damages…

[112] I have considered those and other cases referred to, but of course each case must be decided on its own facts and on the need to compensate that plaintiff for pain, suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life. The accident in this case has had psychological consequences that have, to date, significantly interfered with the plaintiff’s enjoyment of life, her ability to function in both social and occupational settings, and her general sense of self worth. On the other hand, the plaintiff’s physical pain and suffering were short-lived, she has failed to prove that she suffered an organic brain injury, and the condition she has proved is one from which she is likely to fully recover with proper treatment. Taking all of those factors into account, I find $85,000 to be an appropriate award for non-pecuniary damages.

BC Court of Appeal Discusses Causation in Negligence Claims

The law of ‘causation’ was discussed extensively in reasons for judgment released today by the BC Court of Appeal.
Today’s case (Chambers v. Goertz)  involved the appeal of the trial judge’s findings of liability.  At trial the court found a taxi driver partially responsible for a crash for leaving his high-beams on which made it difficult for another motorist to see various Plaintiffs crossing a street.  The other motorist then struck the Plaintiffs causing injuries. (Click here to read my post on the trial judgment).
The taxi driver appealed this finding arguing that “the trial judge erred in law in finding that his conduct was a ‘contributing cause’ of the plaintiffs injuries“.
This appeal was dismissed and the trial judgment was upheld.  In dismissing the Appeal the BC Court of Appeal discussed the law of Causation in personal injury actions, specifically what the law requires for there to be a compensable relationship between the wrong act and injury to the victim.
The Court summarized this area of law as follows:

[18] The Supreme Court’s other use of “material contribution” is seen in Athey v. Leonati, [1996] 3 S.C.R. 458, 140 D.L.R. (4th) 235, [1997] 1 W.W.R. 97, where Major J., writing for the Court, held in the following passage that causation will be established if it is shown that the defendant’s negligence “materially contributed” to the occurrence of the plaintiff’s injury:

The “but for” test is unworkable in some circumstances, so the courts have recognized that causation is established where the defendant’s negligence “materially contributed” to the occurrence of the injury:  Myers v. Peel County Board of Education, [1981] 2 S.C.R. 21, Bonnington Castings, Ltd. v. Wardlaw, [1956] 1 All E.R. 615 (H.L.);McGhee v. National Coal Board, supra. A contributing factor is material if it falls outside the de minimis range: Bonnington Castings, Ltd. v. Wardlaw, supra; see also R. v. Pinske(1988), 30 B.C.L.R. (2d) 114 (B.C.C.A.), aff’d [1989] 2 S.C.R. 979.

]      In Snell v. Farrell, supra, this Court recently confirmed that the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s tortious conduct caused or contributed to the plaintiff’s injury. …

[17] It is not now necessary, nor has it ever been, for the plaintiff to establish that the defendant’s negligence was the sole cause of the injury.  There will frequently be a myriad of other background events which were necessary preconditions to the injury occurring.  To borrow an example from Professor Fleming (The Law of Torts (8th ed. 1992) at p. 193), a “fire ignited in a wastepaper basket is … caused not only by the dropping of a lighted match, but also by the presence of combustible material and oxygen, a failure of the cleaner to empty the basket and so forth”.  As long as a defendant is part of the cause of an injury, the defendant is liable, even though his act alone was not enough to create the injury.  There is no basis for a reduction of liability because of the existence of other preconditions: defendants remain liable for all injuries caused or contributed to by their negligence.

This proposition has long been established in the jurisprudence.  Lord Reid stated in McGhee v. National Coal Board, supra, at p. 1010:

It has always been the law that a pursuer succeeds if he can shew that fault of the defender caused or materially contributed to his injury.  There may have been two separate causes but it is enough if one of the causes arose from fault of the defender.  The pursuer does not have to prove that this cause would of itself have been enough to cause him injury.

[Emphasis in original]

[19] As this passage illustrates, every injury has multiple necessary or “but for” factual causes.  The function of tort law is to identify those for which the defendant should be held responsible.  Thus, in Snell v. Farrell, [1990] 2 S.C.R. 311, 72 D.L.R. (4th), 4 C.C.L.T. (2d) 229, Sopinka J., writing for the Court, said, at 326,

Causation is an expression of the relationship that must be found to exist between the tortious act of the wrongdoer and the injury to the victim in order to justify compensation of the latter out of the pocket of the former.

[20] For purposes of determining whether a breach of duty was a “but for” cause of particular harm, there are no degrees of causation – specific conduct was either necessary for the harm to occur or it was not.  However, not every cause necessary for the harm to occur can reasonably be considered a candidate for liability.  For example, in this case, the accident would not have occurred but for the taxi company dispatcher’s sending Mr. Ahmad to respond to Ms. McDonald’s call, but no one would suggest that the dispatcher should be found liable for what happened.  Therefore the law takes cognizance only of those causes that play a significant role in bringing about the outcome.

[21] This concept has been expressed in different ways.  As I have noted, in Athey v. Leonati, the Court said at para. 15 that “causation is established where the defendant’s negligence ‘materially contributed’ to the occurrence of the injury”, and that a “material contribution” is one that “falls outside the de minimis range”.  To similar effect the Court said, inSnell v. Farrell, at 327, that proof of causation requires “a substantial connection between the injury and the defendant’s conduct”.  “Substantial connection” was also used to describe this idea in R. v. Goldhart, [1996] 2 S.C.R. 463 at 480, 136 D.L.R. (4th) 502, 107 C.C.C. (3d) 481, where the Court said,

The happening of an event can be traced to a whole range of causes along a spectrum of diminishing connections to the event.  The common law of torts has grappled with the problem of causation.  In order to inject some degree of restraint on the potential reach of causation, the concepts of proximate cause and remoteness were developed.  These concepts place limits on the extent of liability in order to implement the sound policy of the law that there exist a substantial connection between the tortious conduct and the injury for which compensation is claimed. …

[22] Clearly, the “material contribution” test discussed in Resurfice Corp. v. Hanke has nothing to do with the circumstances of this case.  Here, it was not impossible for the plaintiffs to prove causation.  Rather, whether the breaches of duty of the parties played legally significant causal roles in the outcome was in each case a question of fact to be answered by rational inference drawn in the usual way from the evidence.  Causation is essentially “a practical question of fact which can best be answered by ordinary common sense”:  Snell v. Farrell at 328, citing Alphacell Ltd. v. Woodward, [1972] 2 All E.R. 475 at 490 (per Lord Salmon).

[23] It was this conventional “but for” test of causation that the trial judge applied when she held that Mr. Ahmad’s breach of duty was a “contributing cause” of the accident and that he was therefore liable.  Her use of the phrase “contributing cause” signifies that she found as a fact that Mr. Ahmad’s conduct played an important enough role in the combination of events necessary for this occurrence to fix him with liability for the consequences.  This was the correct approach in the circumstances and I would reject the submission that she erred in adopting it.

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ERIK
MAGRAKEN

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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