Tag: inference of negligence

Single Vehicle Leaving Roadway With No Reasonable Explanation Sufficient to Prove Negligence

Two cases were recently released by the BC Supreme Court addressing negligence in the face of single vehicle collisions involving vehicles leaving the roadway.
In the first case (McKenzie v. Mills) the Plaintiff was injured when she was the passenger in a vehicle the left the roadway.  The Plaintiff had no recall of how the collision occurred.  The Defendant disputed liability arguing there was no sufficient evidence to prove the collision was caused by negligence.  Madam Justice Dorgan disagreed finding that absent a sensible explanation by the Defendant negligence could be inferred.  In so concluding the Court provided the following reasons:
[30]         Crossing the oncoming traffic lane and even losing control to the point of rolling the vehicle does not necessarily give rise to an inference of negligence; in other words, it is not determinative of the issue of liability.  See Benoit v. Farrell Estate, 2004 BCCA 348 where Smith J.A., writing for the court, says at para. 77:
The question whether negligence should be inferred when a motor vehicle has left its proper lane of travel usually arises in cases, like Fontaine, where the driver of the vehicle is sued by a plaintiff injured in the accident.  In such cases, the plaintiff bears the burden of proof.  The inference that a vehicle does not normally leave its proper lane in the absence of negligence by its operator may afford a prima facie case but, if the defendant driver produces a reasonable explanation that is as consistent with no negligence as with negligence, the inference will be neutralized:  see paras. 23-24.
[31]         However, in this case, neither the defendant nor the third party offered evidence of explanation of the cause or circumstances of the accident.  The defendant left her lane of travel (northbound), crossed over the oncoming lane (southbound), and rolled the truck which was found in the ditch of the southbound lane.  The defendant was intoxicated at the scene; she was given a 24-hour driving prohibition as a result; and was charged with driving while subject to a driving restriction.  While her level of intoxication at the scene is not direct evidence of intoxication while driving, there is no evidence of the defendant, or the plaintiff for that matter, drinking after the accident and before the police arrived.  The only reasonable inference to draw is that the defendant was driving while drunk.
[32]         I have concluded the only reasonable inference to draw from the whole of the evidence is that the plaintiff has established a prima facie case of negligence against the defendant.  The defendant offers no evidence of explanation; therefore, the plaintiff has proved liability.
In the second case (Garneau v. Izatt-Sill) the vehicle left the roadway.  There were no witnesses and two of the vehicles occupants were killed due to the forces of the crash.  The Plaintiff, the sole survivor, had no recall of what occurred.   The Court found that in the circumstances a finding of negligence was warranted with Mr. Justice Weatherill providing the following reasons:
[100]     The evidence leads overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the driver of the vehicle was negligent and that his negligence caused the crash.  The posted speed limit was 110 kph.  The vehicle was travelling in excess of 130 kph at the time of the accident.  As Sgt. Nightingale put it, the crash was caused by speed and the driver’s inattentiveness.  I accept this evidence.  Mr. Bowler agreed that there was no indication of anything mechanically wrong with the vehicle that would have caused or contributed to the crash and that the crash was consistent with driver inattention. 
[101]     In such circumstances, negligence can be inferred: Nason v. Nunes, 2008 BCCA 203 at para. 8.  The defendants led no evidence to the contrary.  

BC Court of Appeal Discusses Rear End Crashes and Permitted Inferences of Negligence

Usually when a driver rear-ends another vehicle that driver is at fault.  However, this is not always the case and reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Court of Appeal addressing this area of law.
In today’s case (Singleton v. Morris) the Plaintiff was involved in a rear end collison in 2005.  She sued the owner and driver of the vehicle that rear-ended her claiming negligence.  The driver of the rear vehicle gave evidence that the collision happened not due to carelessness, but as a result of an unexpected slippery substance on the road (perhaps brake fluid) and this caused her to lose control and collide with the Plaintiff vehicle.  This evidence was accepted and the Plaintiff’s claim was dismissed by the trial court.
The Plaintiff appealed the finding arguing that the trial judge was wrong.  The Court of Appeal disagreed and dismissed the appeal.  In doing so the Court discussed the permitted inferences of negligence in rear end crashes cases and the burden of proof.  The highlights of the Courts discussion were as follows:

[32] The burden of proof in cases of negligence is set out in Fontaine v. British Columbia (Official Administrator), [1998] 1 S.C.R. 424. There, Mr. Justice Major stated that the maxim of res ipsa loquitur should be treated as expired. He said:

27        It would appear that the law would be better served if the maxim was treated as expired and no longer used as a separate component in negligence actions.  After all, it was nothing more than an attempt to deal with circumstantial evidence. That evidence is more sensibly dealt with by the trier of fact, who should weigh the circumstantial evidence with the direct evidence, if any, to determine whether the plaintiff has established on a balance of probabilities a prima facie case of negligence against the defendant. Once the plaintiff has done so, the defendant must present evidence negating that of the plaintiff or necessarily the plaintiff will succeed.  [Emphasis added.]

[33] Mr. Justice Major’s statement sets out the general approach in negligence cases.  That is, the trier of fact should weigh both the circumstantial evidence and the direct evidence, where available, in determining whether the plaintiff has established a prima facie case of negligence.  In cases involving both direct and circumstantial evidence, the circumstantial evidence, and any inferences that may be drawn from it, is but one component of the case.  Where, however, there is no direct evidence, circumstantial evidence and the inferences that may arise from it may form the entire basis of the plaintiff’s case.

[34] Importantly, as stated by this court in Marchuk v. Swede Creek Contracting Ltd. (1998), 116 B.C.A.C. 318 at para. 10:

… The legal burden of proof, of course, remains on the plaintiff throughout.

[35] Here, because the plaintiff failed to establish that the defendant was driving at an excessive speed, there was no direct evidence of negligence on the part of the defendant.  Therefore, the plaintiff was forced to rely on circumstantial evidence and sought to establish an inference of negligence because the accident was a rear-end collision.

[36] Madam Justice Newbury examined the drawing of such inferences and the rebutting of them through the defence of explanation in Nason v. Nunes, 2008 BCCA 203.  InNason, a car had gone off the road. Newbury J.A. said:

[14]   … This is not to suggest that an inference may not be drawn as a matter of fact in a particular case, where a vehicle leaves the road or a driver loses control; but as the trial judge stated … such an inference will be “highly dependent on the facts” of the case and the explanation required to rebut it will “vary in accordance with the strength of the inference sought to be drawn by the plaintiff.”  [Emphasis in original.]

[37] In Fontaine, Mr. Justice Major applied the law relating to such inferences and the defence of explanation to the facts of the case before him, stating:

33        If an inference of negligence might be drawn in these circumstances, it would be modest.  The trial judge found that the defence had succeeded in producing alternative explanations of how the accident may have occurred without negligence on Loewen’s part.  Most of the explanations offered by the defendants were grounded in the evidence and were adequate to neutralize whatever inference the circumstantial evidence could permit to be drawn.  The trial judge’s finding was not unreasonable and should not be interfered with on appeal.

[38] Thus, in cases such as this, the trial judge may – but is not required to – draw an inference of negligence from the fact there was a rear-end collision.  The defence, however, may attempt to rebut such inferences through the defence of explanation.  A defence of explanation, as stated in Hackman v. Vecchio (1969), 4 D.L.R. (3d) 444 at 446 (B.C.C.A.) is an explanation of how an accident may have occurred without the defendant’s negligence.  The defendant does not bear the onus of proving how the accident did happen.  The trial judge drew an inference of negligence in this case.  She said, “In this case, given that this was a rear-end collision in which the truck was properly stopped and was there to be seen, there is a prima facie case of negligence.”  Further, the trial judge correctly noted that Mrs. Morris “has to advance an explanation as to how the collision may have occurred without negligence on her part.”

[39] Here, the inference of negligence was, as the trial judge correctly held, adequately explained.  The plaintiff had failed to establish that Mrs. Morris was driving at an excessive speed or braked too late.  The trial judge accepted the defendant’s explanation of the presence of the oily substance on the road.  The explanation was “adequate to neutralize whatever inference the circumstantial evidence could permit to be drawn.”  The trial judge’s finding was not unreasonable and should not be interfered with on appeal.

[40] I would dismiss the appeal.

BC Court of Appeal Clarifies Law Regarding Loss of Vehicle Control

In an important judgment released today by the BC Court of Appeal, the law relating to what inferences a court can draw regarding liability (fault) when a vehicle leaves its lane of travel was clarified.
As in many areas of law, there were some competing authorities addressing this topic and today’s judgment reconciled these. For anyone advancing a tort claim as a result of a single vehicle accident in BC this case is must reading.
In 2002 the Plaintiff’s were injured when the driver of their vehicle lost control in winter driving conditions. The accident was significant. The truck “traversed a bridge, travelled about ten feet after leaving it, and then rolled over and landed on its wheels below the road, resulting in injury to the Plaintiffs“.
The Plaintiffs sued several parties as a result of this accident, most importantly the driver of the vehicle. The Trial Judge found that the Plaintiffs “had failed to prove negligence on (the drivers) part” and that the driver “had driven with reasonable care and that any presumption of negligence arising from his loss of control was rebutted by his explanation that the truck had fishtailed when it went over a bump between the road surface and a bridge.”
The Court of Appeal upheld the trial judgement. In doing so some important clarifications in the law were made.
The Appellant sought to rely on the judgment of Savinkoff v. Seggewiss, in which the court held that “sliding out of control…gives rise to an inference of negligence…in that (the driver) was either not sufficiently attentive to the road conditions, or he was driving too fast, or both.” In Savnikoff the court quoted with approval a passage from an old case where it was held that “if roads are in such a condition that a motor car cannot safely proceed at all, it is the duty of the driver to stop. If the roads are in such a condition that it is not safe to go at more than a foot pace, his duty is to proceed at a foot pace“.
In today’s judgment the Court of Appeal referred to the authoritative judgment of Fontaine v. British Columbia. In that decision the Supreme Court of Canada held that “(the bald proposition that an inference of negligence should be drawn whenever a vehicle leaves the roadway in a single vehicle accident) ignores the fact that whether an inference of negligence can be drawn is highly dependent upon the circumstces of each case“.
The Court reconciled the Fontaine and Savinkoff decisions as follows:
If and to the extent that the Court in Savinkoff intended to establish or confirm a legal rule that negligence must be inferred as a matter of law whenever a vehicle goes off the road and that the defendant must always meet it in the matter suggested, I believe the decesion has been superseded by Fontaine. Wherever the court finds on all the evidence that negligence has not been proven, or that the defendant has shown he drove with reasonable care, the defendant must succeed, whether or not he is able to ‘explain’ how the accident occurred. This is not to suggest that an inference may not be drawn as a matter of fact in a particular case, where a vehicle leaves the road or a driver loses control; but as the trial judge stated at paragraph 53 of her reasons, such an inference will be ‘highly dependant on the facts’ of the case and the explanation required to rebut it will ‘vary in accordance with the strength of the inference sought to be drawn by the plaintiff.
Bottom Line: If a driver loses control of a vehicle he/she is not automatically at fault nor is there a shifting of the burden of proof. The court simply MAY draw the inference that he/she is at fault and whether it is appropriate to do so is ‘highly dependant on the facts of each case’.

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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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