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How Do the Courts Determine Who is at Fault for a Motor Vehicle Accident?

On a fine summer day in Edmonton, Peter made a left-hand turn on a yellow light.  His vision of the oncoming lane was blocked by a car also trying to make a left-hand turn.  As he sped through the intersection, Paul was driving straight down the lane that Peter could not see.  Paul, noting the amber light, made the decision to accelerate well past the speed limit to try to beat the red, but as he was looking at his cell phone screen and not the road, he did not see Peter turning.  The two vehicles collided forcefully.  Both vehicles were badly damaged and both Peter and Paul suffered personal injuries.  The only witness to the accident was Mary, a pedestrian, who unfortunately got hit by some flying fragments from the impact of the two vehicles, resulting in lacerations.

The first question asked in a motor vehicle claim is who is “at fault”, or responsible, or in the wrong for the accident.  Our Courts ask that question because our system is designed to compensate people for injuries that are other people’s fault, not their own fault.  In this way, our laws encourage people to be careful and take personal responsibility for their actions, keeping one another safe. 

So what happens in the unfortunate case of Peter, Paul, and Mary?

The law of fault is largely judge-made, also known as the “common law”, applying principles of negligence.  The Court must ask itself whether each driver behaved like a reasonable and careful driver.  In doing so, the Court considers reported decisions of other Courts which were faced with similar scenarios.  In the case of Peter, Paul, and Mary, such cases could include ones involving drivers who turned left without being able to see oncoming traffic, and drivers who were speeding and distracted such as by cell phones.

In addition to the judge-made law, the Traffic Safety Act (“TSA”) was passed by the Alberta Legislature to provide some guidance on finding liability.

Section 184 of the TSA gives the general principle that the Act does not strip away common law rights to sue for motor vehicle accidents.

Generally, the law of negligence requires the injured party to prove that the defendant caused their injuries. Section 185 of the TSA creates a reverse onus of proof where a driver fails to comply with the TSA: the owner or driver of the vehicle has the onus to prove that the loss or damage did not arise by reason of his or her failure to comply with the TSA.  This is a “reverse onus” provision which helps people, in proving their claim, who were injured by drivers who violated the TSA.

Section 186 of the TSA provides that if a person sustains loss or damage by reason of a motor vehicle being in motion, the driver or owner of that vehicle has the onus to prove that such loss or damage did not occur entirely or solely through negligence on improper conduct of the owner or driver. Subsection 2 of section 186 clarifies that this section does not apply in the case of an accident between motor vehicles on a highway.  This is an important “reverse onus” provision that helps injured parties (such as pedestrians and cyclists) who are not operating motor vehicles prove their claim.  Instead of having to prove the driver was negligent, the driver has to disprove negligence.

The Court also looks at applying the “rules of the road” – these are contained in the Use of Highway and Rules of the Road Regulation, which lists many things that drivers must and must not do in operating motor vehicles.

In the case of Peter, Paul, and Mary, it’s pretty obvious that both Peter and Paul have done things that a reasonable and prudent driver would not have done.  Peter made a left-hand turn on a yellow light, at high speed, without being able to see oncoming traffic.  A left-hand turning vehicle always disrupts the flow of traffic in the opposite direction, and so has a heavy obligation to make that turn in safety.  On the other hand, Paul was speeding and not looking where he was going – and to top it off, he was fiddling with his cell phone, which is expressly forbidden by the TSA.  Both drivers are negligent to some extent, and both their negligence in some way caused the accident.  On the other hand, Mary was not negligent, and was only hurt because she was at the wrong place at the wrong time.  What does that mean for recovery?

Under the Contributory Negligence Act (“CNA”), section 1(1), each person is liable to pay damages to the extent or degree that they were at fault.  So, if a Court finds that, of two people, one is twice as negligent as the other, that person will have to pay two-thirds of the loss (if sued), and if that person is suing, then that person will only get one-third of his damages.

Understandably, it can be difficult for a Court to say who is more negligent, and in our case, both Peter and Paul did several things that could be considered negligent.  If a Court decides that it cannot decide which person is more negligent, the CNA says that liability shall be apportioned equally – that is, 50/50.

But what about Mary?  She is not at fault, and has two negligent drivers, both of whose negligence contributed to the collision, and hence to her injuries.  Section 2(1) of the CNA applies to her, and the Court determines the degree to which each driver was at fault. So let’s say a Court finds that Peter is 66% liable and Paul is 34% liable.  Mary can collect 66% of her damages from Peter and 34% from Paul.

Sometimes only one Defendant has the means to pay a judgment.  While presumably both Peter and Paul have motor vehicle insurance, let’s say that Paul does not (in a later blog we will go into this in more detail when we discuss uninsured motorists and the role of the Administrator of the Motor Vehicle Accidents Claims Act).  Section 2(2) of the CNA allows Mary to go after Peter for the full amount of her judgment, and then Peter gets to worry about whether it is possible for him, or his insurer, to collect back the 34% that Paul should be paying.

Courts also may draw a distinction between liability for the accident, and liability for the injuries.  We have been discussing only liability for the accident. You can read about what happens when a party’s own negligent conduct contributes to his or her injuries even if that conduct does not contribute to the accident here.

Finally, just because there was an accident does not always mean someone is at fault for it.  These situations are not common, but for example, if a driver has an unexpected seizure during driving, leading to an accident, then there may be no blame on anyone.  This is called “inevitable accident”, and for it to be relevant, the accident truly had to be unavoidable.  For example, if the driver had a history of seizures and failed to take medication prescribed for them on the day of the accident, there may be a finding of liability against that driver.

Liability for a motor vehicle accident can be a complicated subject, and you should seek legal advice on your own circumstances should you be unfortunate enough to have been involved in a motor vehicle accident.  Again, the overriding theme is fault, and the law expects us to take personal responsibility for our acts. If you have been involved in a motor vehicle accident and want to speak with a lawyer, you can contact us here.

By Philip Kirman