(Update May 30, 2012 – The Plaintiff’s appeal from the below decision was dismissed by the BC Court of Appeal in reasons for judgement released today)
As previously discussed, the principle of “agony of collision” can excuse a driver who loses control of their vehicle if the loss of control is preceded by an unexpected imminent danger not caused by them. Reasons for judgement were released this week by the BC Supreme Court, Penticton Registry, demonstrating this.
In this week’s case (Robbins v. Webb) the Defendant was driving a pick-up truck in a southbound direction. The roads were ‘very slippery‘ due to winter driving conditions. The Plaintiff was approaching in the on-coming direction and began to fishtail. The Defendant responded by hitting his brakes. This caused the Defendant’s vehicle to lock up and proceed into the oncoming lane of travel. The vehicles collided.
The Plaintiff sued the Defendant for the injuries he sustained in this crash. The case was dismissed with the Court finding that the Plaintiff was careless in initially losing control and this resulted in the Defendants reasonable reaction. In dismissing the lawsuit Mr. Justice Melnick provided the following reasons:
 Thus, I accept that Mr. Webb was fully in his own southbound lane when he first commenced braking. I also find that the reason Mr. Webb applied his brakes hard, locking them and causing his vehicle to slide into the northbound lane, was because Mr. Robbins had temporarily lost control of his vehicle due to the poor tread on the Cobalt’s tires coupled with his driving too fast for the icy road conditions, which caused the left rear of the Cobalt to skid sideways in a clockwise direction, crossing partially into the southbound lane. Mr. Webb reacted to a situation precipitated by Mr. Robbins, not the other way around.
 It may well be that if Mr. Webb had not braked, his vehicle would not have skidded into the oncoming lane. Mr. Robbins was probably in the process of regaining control of the Cobalt when he was struck. But, in the heat of the moment, one cannot say that Mr. Webb’s reaction was inappropriate. To his right was a steep uphill bank, so his options were very limited. He reacted to the position he found himself in as a result of the negligence of Mr. Robbins.
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’.