How do you prove Liability for a Motor Vehicle Accident?

Posted by Stevenson Whelton LLP
December 19, 2019

Motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of accidental death and serious injury in Canada and every day, at least four Canadians are killed in a crash.  In most cases, motor vehicle accidents are preventable and were caused by a careless or negligent action or a driving error.  The most common causes of collisions are distracted driving, impaired driving, speeding, fatigue or violation of a traffic law, such as failing to yield.

When someone is seriously injured in a motor vehicle accident caused by another person, they have the legal right to sue the at fault party for damages.  Damages are compensation for financial losses and non-economic losses, such as pain and suffering, that are awarded to a plaintiff who was injured in an accident.   And, the objective of ‘damages’ is to return the injured party to the state they were in before the accident occurred.

The three key issues that must be resolved if you’re suing another party for injuries arising from motor vehicle accidents are: 1) who is liable for the accident; 2) what injuries were sustained by the plaintiff; and 3) what losses did the plaintiff suffer due to their injuries.

Proving Fault and Liability for an Accident

Every driver owes all other road users, including pedestrians and cyclists, a duty to take care and avoid causing injury to others.   And, a defendant driver or another person can be found at fault and ‘liable’ for an accident if you can prove the following key elements: 1) they were negligent and breached their duty of care to you; 2) their actions caused the accident; and 3) you suffered injuries and losses as a result of their actions.  Note that drivers are not held to a standard of perfection, rather, a finding of ‘negligence’ requires that a driver’s actions fell below what a reasonable person would have done in similar circumstances. 

In some civil actions, the defendant driver does not dispute that they caused the accident and are liable, in which case you don't need to prove negligence. This is particularly true when the driver was charged and convicted of a driving offence connected with the accident since, in such a case, the Courts generally rely on the conviction as evidence that the driver was negligent.  Also, if a driver is ticketed for a traffic violation in connection with an accident, such as ‘failing to yield or stop’, and they pay the fine, the act of paying the fine indicates to the Court that the driver has admitted guilt for the action.

In cases where the defendant denies responsibility for the accident, the Court must decide who is liable given the circumstances of the accident.  And, as noted above, negligence may be easy to establish if the defendant driver was convicted of a driving offence.    

In order to make a determination of liability, judges typically evaluate evidence such as police accident reports, testimony given by all involved parties, witness statements, and expert testimony by accident re-constructionists.  A judge may also make an assessment based on the Fault Determination Rules set out in Ontario’s Insurance Act.

Case law and traffic laws are weighed heavily when determining negligence.  For example, if one of the drivers in a collision was turning left, case law places the onus on the left-turning driver to turn into approaching traffic only after having ascertained that they can made the turn safety (Payne v. Lane, 1949).  In Marcoccia v. Ford Credit Canada Limited (2009), the defendant driver was found contributorily liable for an accident involving a plaintiff who ran a red light because the defendant turned left without properly checking for oncoming traffic.

Rear-end collisions are among the most frequently-occurring accidents and, in these types of accidents, the rear driver is almost always found negligent in causing the accident. Drivers are expected to anticipate that a car they are following might stop at any time, and the Ministry of Transportation’s Ontario Driver’s Handbook states that drivers must always ensure they have enough space to stop safely even when the other vehicle brakes unexpectedly.  Also, the Courts rely on the following landmark decisions when determining fault in rear-end collision cases:

When one vehicle strikes another from behind, the fault rests with the driver of the rear vehicle, and the driver of the rear vehicle has the onus of proving that the collision did not occur as a result of his or her negligence (Beaumont v Ruddy, 1932)

"When one motor vehicle is following another, there is not only a duty in law on the following vehicle to exercise reasonable care, but if he collides with the leading vehicle there is an onus of proof resting on him which has been correctly described in Beaumont v Ruddy.” (Ontario Court of Appeal in Ruetz v Goetz, 1955).

In some cases, proving liability can be more complicated and difficult.  For example, if road infrastructure and municipal negligence may have contributed to the accident, determination of liability may be complex.  Also, in cases where multiple drivers have made errors and potentially contributed to the accident, the court may be required to determine how much liability is attributable to each party.

If you would like to claim damages for a motor vehicle accident, talk to one of our experienced Oakville accident lawyers at Stevenson Whelton MacDonald & Swan and get a frank assessment of your case.   

Disclaimer: Our blog is intended to inform our existing and prospective clients about topics pertinent to their lives. While our goal is to provide accurate and factual information, this in no way should be taken as legal advice or applied to specific cases. It is in your best interest to contact a licenced and practising lawyer for legal representation, as matters of the law are often complicated and cannot be fully assessed without knowing all of the details of a case.