Appeal Court finds Driver wholly liable for Catastrophic Spinal Injury

Posted by Stevenson Whelton MacDonald & Swan
March 07, 2019

A 37-year-old father, Michael Chiocchio Sr., suffered a fractured cervical spine rendering him a quadriplegic, when the minivan in which he was a passenger was struck by a sedan at an intersection at the outskirts of Hamilton.  In a 2016 civil action, the Court found the sedan driver and City of Hamilton equally liable for Mr. Chiocchio's injuries.  The City was found contributorily negligent for failing to properly maintain a faded stop line at the intersection, while the Sedan driver was found liable for pulling into the intersection without first checking that it was safe to do so.

In a 2018 trial, Chiocchio v. Hamilton (City), the Appeal Court rejected the earlier decision and disagreed with the finding that the municipality was partially liable.  Instead, the Court found that the car driver did not meet the standards of an ‘ordinary responsible driver’ and was wholly negligent in failing to make sure that he had a clear sightline of traffic in both directions before entering the intersection. 

Background and Analysis: Chiocchio v. Hamilton (City)

The accident happened when Mr. Chiocchio’s minivan, which was travelling northbound on Brock Road, was T-boned by a car accelerating into the intersection while heading westbound on 5th Concession West.  The impact caused the minivan to roll over and hit a pole.  There was no stop sign for traffic travelling north/south on Brock Road, but westbound traffic on 5th Concession had a stop sign and faded stop line, some meters apart. This meant that that the minivan clearly had the right of way, but issues to be resolved in a civil action for damages were whether or not the City of Hamilton shared responsibility for the accident. 

The car driver admitted that he was negligent in entering the intersection when it was unsafe to do so.  However, the defendant argued that the City of Hamilton shared fault for the accident because the City failed in its duty to keep the road in a reasonable state of repair by failing to repaint the faded stop sign.  Further, counsel argued that, as a result, this sign was not effective in guiding drivers on where to stop and this circumstance is the reason why the defendant did not stop there and see traffic advancing into the intersection on Brock Road.  During the original trial, the defendant alleged that he stopped at a stop sign, although he didn’t remember where it was located, and also testified that he didn’t know why he wasn’t aware of the northbound vehicle prior to the crash.  After considering all the evidence, the judge agreed that the City was 50 percent responsible for the collision.

The key legislation guiding the decisions in this case is the Highway Traffic Act s. 136(1).  The Act states, where there is no stop line or crosswalk, a driver who approaches a stop sign at an intersection is obligated to stop their vehicle “immediately before entering the intersection”.  Further, the driver approaching a stop sign at an intersection must “yield the right of way to traffic in the intersection or approaching the intersection on another highway so closely that to proceed would constitute an immediate hazard”.  

The trial judge referred to the reasonable driver standard and noted that an ordinary driver using reasonable care should be aware of s. 136 of the Act. However, based on defence evidence provided by a forensic engineer, the judge found that the faded and ineffective stop line prevented drivers from knowing exactly where to stop and even a reasonable driver might stop at a location where they didn’t have a clear sight line of traffic on Brock Road.  On this basis, the judge found the City negligent in failing to properly maintain the stop line. 

On Appeal, the Court acknowledged that the reasonable driver standard takes into consideration the fact that errors sometimes occur even when ordinary drivers exercise reasonable care.  Nevertheless, the Appeal Court found that the trial judge erred in his application of the ordinary reasonable driver standard.  The key question was not whether an ordinary reasonable driver is expected to know the exact safe stopping distance from an intersection but rather, whether the absence of stop line at the intersection created an unreasonable risk of harm for ordinary drivers who occasionally make errors.  And, on this question, the Court asserted that “ordinary reasonable drivers would not stop their cars in a location where their view of oncoming traffic from one direction would be completely obscured and then proceed into the intersection without stopping again.” 

Evidence was presented showing that a house completely obscured views of southbound traffic for drivers who stopped at the stop sign, but their sightline became clear if they stopped a few meters further at the faded stop line.  The Appeal Court found that a driver’s obligation under s. 136 of the Act is to stop at a point close to an intersection where they have sightlines in both directions. And, anyone who fails to do so and is not exercising common sense does not meet the standards of an ordinary reasonable driver.   It follows that the at fault driver in this case did not use common sense and reasonable prudence by stopping at a location before the intersection where he had a clear view of northbound and southbound traffic on Brock Road. 

The Appeal Court concluded that the evidence did not support a finding that the intersection posed an unreasonable risk of harm to drivers.  Therefore, the action against the City of Hamilton for failing to keep the roadway in a reasonable state of repair was dismissed, leaving the negligent driver wholly responsible for the accident and the plaintiff’s injuries.

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