Skip to main content

Tag: road maintenance liability

Court of Appeal Discusses Standard of Care In Road Construction Liability Cases

Reasons for judgement were released this week by the BC Court of Appeal upholding a trial verdict finding the City of Abbotsford and a private contractor 80% responsible for a single vehicle collision in a construction zone.
In this week’s case (Van Tent v. Abborsford) the plaintiff was riding his motorcycle through a construction zone when he drifted over the fogline to his right.  There was a two inch drop off in the pavement level due to on-going construction.  The Plaintiff lost control and was injured.
The Plaintiff was found partially at fault for not driving safely, however, the Defendants bore 80% of the blame for “failing to adequately mark the uneven pavement“.
The trial judge found that the Ministry of Transportation’s Traffic Control Manual for Work on Roadways was informative of the standard of care.   The Defendants “failed to adhere to several of those standards“.  In finding that this was an appropriate standard of care to hold the Defendants to the BC Court of Appeal provided the following reasons:
[11]         Sections 138 and 139 of the Motor Vehicle Act, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 318, require traffic control devices be erected on a highway when there is construction. Those sections read:
Work in progress
138  On a highway where new construction, reconstruction, widening, repair, marking or other work is being carried out, traffic control devices must be erected indicating that persons or equipment are working on the highway.
Erection of speed sign
139  On a highway where new construction, reconstruction, widening, repair, marking or other work is being carried out, traffic control devices must be erected to limit the rate of speed of vehicles or to restrict the manner in which the vehicles are to proceed on the highway.
[12]         The Ministry of Transportation’s Traffic Control Manual for Work on Roadways [the “Manual”] contains prescribed standards for designing and implementing traffic control plans for construction zones on British Columbia highways.  Section 1.1 states that the examples provided within the Manual are “generally the minimum required”…
[45]         As already noted, the trial judge held at para. 93 of her reasons that s. 138 of the Motor Vehicle Act and the Manual informed the standard of care expected of a reasonably prudent contractor in the circumstances.  (Although not specifically mentioned, s. 139 is of relevance as well.)  She found in fact that the appellant contractor fell below this standard in a number of ways, beginning at para. 71:
[71]      In this case, the standard of care is greatly informed, although not dictated, by the collection of uniform traffic control standards detailed in the Manual.  By virtue of performing construction work on a provincial highway, the defendants were required, at a minimum, to abide by the principles and guidelines it contained.  The applicable standards endorsed in the Manual accord with common sense and the conduct expected of a prudent contractor in the circumstances in relation to the task of ensuring the safety of the users of the road and work crews during times of construction and maintenance.
[72]      In my view, the defendants failed to adhere to several of those minimal standards.  With respect to many of them, Mr. Stewart variously seemed not to know of them or appreciate their application or the complexities of the planning work that was required of him in creating and implementing an appropriate traffic control plan.
[46]         The errors identified by the appellants are findings of fact made by the trial judge.  The appellants have not identified any palpable or overriding errors that would warrant intervention by this Court.  Those findings of fact are amply supported by the evidence.  I conclude that the trial judge did not err in describing the standard of care, or in concluding that it was breached by the appellants.

Road Maintenance Claims "Clearly Require Expert Evidence" Addressing Standard of Care

If a road maintenance company unreasonably fails to maintain a road for which they are responsible they can be held civilly liable for resulting harm.  Reasons for judgement were released last week by the BC Supreme Court, New Westminster Registry, discussing the complex nature of  such claims finding that such cases clearly require expert evidence to succeed.
In last week’s case (Collins v. Rees) the Plaintiff was injured in a 2005 collision when she lost control of her vehicle colliding with the side of the Massey Tunnel and was then struck by another vehicle.  She sued the contracting company responsible for maintaining that stretch of roadway arguing they failed to take proper steps to prevent the build up of ice.
Mr. Justice Williams noted that the claim must fail as there was no evidence to prove icy conditions caused the loss of control but further that cases such as this cannot succeed without expert evidence addressing the standard of care.  The court provided the following comments:
[36]         With respect to the issue of standard of care, I can find nothing in the record which could be said to constitute evidence going to prove the applicable standard of care of the defendants. To find that on the evidence before this court would require guesswork and speculation. I am unable to infer that standard from the evidentiary record.
[37]         Inference is the exercise of reaching a logical conclusion by reasoning from proven facts. Here, the proven facts from which the inference could be drawn are not present.
[38]         Insofar as applying my own knowledge of every day matters, that would not be an appropriate way to deal with this issue. Decisions as to the proper steps, measures and procedures to sign and maintain a highway system in a large metropolitan community are undoubtedly complex things. I am sure that engineers have spent their entire lives working on those very issues. The same applies with respect to issues such as drainage and vapour barriers. It is not reasonable to expect that a trial judge, as a layperson, will draw the inferences to establish this element. It is clearly a matter that requires expert evidence.
[39]         Accordingly, I find the plaintiff has adduced no evidence with respect to the element of the applicable standard of care and, as well, the issue of the defendants’ failure to meet that standard of care and that, therefore, the defendants’ applications must succeed.

Negligence Claims Against Road Maintenance Companies

If a private contractor fails to clear ice, snow or other hazards on a roadway in British Columbia and this leads to a collision they can, depending on the circumstnaces, be sued for damages in negligence.  This topic was discussed in reasons for judgement released yesterday by the BC Supreme Court, Smithers Registry.
In yesterday’s case (Billabong Road & Bridge Maintenance Inc. v. Brook) the Plaintiff was involved in a single vehicle collision on Highway 16E near Smithers, BC.   She lost control of her vehicle on black-ice and left the roadway.  At the time the Defendant had the contract with the Provincial Government to maintain that stretch of highway.  They did not sand the road and the Plaintiff sued claiming they were at fault for the crash.  The Defendant argued that the Plaintiff drove carelessly and was solely to blame for the crash.
At trial the presiding Judge found both the Plaintiff and Defendant were at fault.  The road maintenance company appealed arguing that the Judge imposed an unfair standard on them.  The appeal was dismissed with the BC Supreme Court finding that the contractor did not respond appropriately to the known slippery conditions.  While the outcome of these cases are highly fact driven Madam Justice Bruce provided the following useful reasons discussing the law of road contractor liability in British Columbia:

[25]        Where the Province delegates responsibility for road maintenance to a private contractor, the contractor inherits the same Crown immunity for policy decisions, but continues to be liable under private law for negligence arising out of operational decisions. For example, where the contract with the Provincial Government specifies that particular road work must be completed within two hours of certain events, compliance with this standard is sufficient to clothe the contractor with immunity for any claim in negligence by a pedestrian or motorist. This is because the time frame for the completion of the work is a matter of policy set by the Provincial Government after balancing the costs associated with the work with the need to ensure the safety of the travelling public. As Meiklem J. says in Holbrook v. Argo Road Maintenance Inc., [1996] B.C.J. No. 1855 (S.C.) at paras. 27-28:

[27]      On the analysis prescribed by the majority of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Just and Brown cases, policy decisions of the Crown are not reviewable and in Brown it was expressly held that decisions as to the level of road maintenance are decisions of policy and cannot be reviewed on a private law standard of reasonableness. They are only reviewable if so irrational as not to be a proper exercise of discretion.

[28]      The application of these principles of course allows the government ministry to indirectly establish the upper limits of the standard of care that they are then held to in their operational functions. Thus the courts defer in a substantial way to the government ministry and the operational standard of care slides up and down the scale according to the level of road maintenance that is set as a matter of policy. Thus if a private law standard of reasonableness in a certain storm condition might suggest hourly patrols but policy has set the frequency of patrols at daily, the latter would prevail as the applicable standard in a negligence action against the Ministry.

[26]        On the other hand, where the negligence arises out of an operational decision, and is not based on a standard of care established as a matter of policy by the terms of the contract with the Provincial Government, a contractor must meet the private law standard. The Court of Appeal described this operational standard of care in Benoit v. Farrell Estate, 2004 BCCA 348 at para. 39:

[39]      The parties agree that Mainroad’s duty is coterminous with the Crown’s duty of care to users of public highways in respect of operational matters.  They agree that the decision whether to apply salt to Highway #4 was an operational decision and that the duty of Mainroad was to take reasonable care to prevent injury to users of the highway by icy conditions: Brown v. British Columbia, [1994] 1 S.C.R. 420 at 439.  The standard of care in respect of highway maintenance was more recently described in Housen v. Nikolaisen at para. 38, quoting from Partridge v. Rural Municipality of Langenburg, [1929] 3 W.W.R. 555 at 558-59 (Sask. C.A.):

…the road must be kept in such a reasonable state of repair that those requiring to use it may, exercising ordinary care, travel upon it with safety.  What is a reasonable state of repair is a question of fact, depending upon all the surrounding circumstances….