Tag: rear end collisions

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.

Can A Motorist Be At Fault For Being Rear-Ended?

(Please not the case discussed in the below post was overturned by the BC Court of Appeal who ordered a new trial.  You can read the BCCA decision by clicking here)
While unusual the answer is yes.  Reasons for judgement were released today discussing this area of the law.
In today’s case (Skinner v. Guo) the Plaintiff was involved in a 2006 BC Car Crash.  The Plaintiff was driving on Highway 1 when he rear-ended the Defendant’s vehicle which was stationary in the Plaintiff’s lane of travel.  The Defendant did not give any evidence at trial although it appears the Defendant stopped because he struck a coyote.  Given the Defendant’s lack of explanation for being stopped in a travelled portion of the roadway the Court found that he was in violation of s. 187 of the Motor Vehicle Act.
The Plaintiff argued that the Defendant was at fault for the collision for stopping his vehicle and failing to activate his emergency flashers.  Mr. Justice Harvey disagreed and found the Plaintiff 100% at fault for failing to see a stationary vehicle that was there to be seen.  Before dismissing the case Mr. Harvey said the following with respect to fault when a motorist rear ends another in British Columbia:

[15] All of the cases referred to me by counsel note that there is a high onus on a following driver, as stated in Molson v. Squamish Transfer Ltd. (1969), 7 D.L.R. (3d) 553 (B.C.S.C.).  One principle to be extracted from the rear?end cases is that when one car runs into another from behind, the onus is on the driver of the rear car to show that the collision was not occasioned by his fault.  However, each case must be decided upon its facts, and I have been referred to cases where substantial liability has been imposed upon the front driver and others where the following driver has been assessed one hundred percent of the claim.  I do not find this case similar to the authorities referred to me by counsel for the plaintiff, which include McMillan v. Siemens, [1994] B.C.J. No. 2546 (S.C.); Lloyd v. Fox (1991), 57 B.C.L.R. (2d) 332 (C.A.); and W.K. Enterprises Ltd. v. Stetar, [1976] B.C.J. No. 484 (S.C.).  In each of those cases the hazard created by the negligence of the driver who had stopped his vehicle was not apparent for either reasons of weather conditions or the design of the roadway until a point where the plaintiff’s vehicle was much closer than was the case here.

[16] Baker v. Cade, [1999] B.C.J. No. 239 (S.C.), has facts which are most analogous to the case at bar.  There, the collision involved two cars and a motorcycle.  The first car stopped in the middle of a bridge, and the car immediately behind that car came to a stop as well, without activating emergency flashers.  The plaintiffs were following behind on a motorcycle.  The stopped vehicles were approximately 800 feet away when the plaintiff crested the bridge and had a view of what was happening.  The plaintiffs were unable to stop the motorcycle and collided with the rear of the second vehicle, suffering significant injury.  The role of the driver of the second vehicle in that situation is analogous to that of the defendant in this case.  While Drost J. concluded that the driver of the second vehicle was negligent, he held that his negligence was not the proximate cause of the accident.  I reach the same conclusion here.

[17] The only distinguishing factor in this case is that the accident occurred at night.  However, I find as a fact that the area was well lit and the sight line of the plaintiff would have allowed him to the defendant’s stationary vehicle approximately a kilometre away.  Indeed, the plaintiff says he did see the defendant’s vehicle, but that he did not determine until it was too late that it was stopped.  Despite his description of the traffic, he took no evasive manoeuvres to avoid striking the rear of the defendant’s vehicle.  He believes he was some 20 to 30 yards away when he slammed on the brakes.

[18] Accordingly, the action is dismissed.

For more on this area of the law click here to read a case summary where a motorist was found partially at fault for being rear-ended.

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ERIK
MAGRAKEN

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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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