Case Study: Sorting Out He Said/She Said Car Accidents
Car accident lawsuits are often decided based on the relative credibility of the drivers involved. In many cases there is no outside evidence, such as a police investigation or independent accident reconstruction, to aid a judge or jury in deciding who was at fault. This makes the court’s assessment of the parties and their witnesses (if any) crucial to its determination of auto accident liability.
Adatia v. Cassar: Judge Sends Conflicting Witness Accounts to Jury Trial
For example, an Ontario Superior Court justice recently denied a defence motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit arising from a two-car accident for which liability is disputed. (A motion for summary judgment asks the judge to decide a case before trial, either because the law requires a certain outcome or because whatever evidence has been provided at that point conclusively establishes who should win.)
In this case, the accident occurred at a three-way stop (or “T intersection”) with the plaintiff traveling eastbound and the defendant traveling southbound. According to the plaintiff, she came to a proper stop at the intersection, but as she proceeded into the intersection, the defendant, in the midst of making a left-hand turn, collided with her.
The defendant acknowledges colliding with the plaintiff in the intersection. According to him, he had lawfully stopped at the intersection and, seeing no cars from the eastbound direction, proceeded with the right-of-way. As far as he was concerned, it was the plaintiff who entered the intersection improperly and collided with him.
As it turned out, there was purportedly a third driver present who was traveling in the westbound direction. He also testified that he stopped at the intersection. More to the point, he saw the defendant also stopping and entering the intersection. Only then did the witness observe the plaintiff “approach from the east, not slow or stop at her stop sign, and hit the defendant’s vehicle as he was making his left turn.”
There was no other evidence presented to the court aside from the witness testimony. Based on this, the defence moved for summary judgment. The defendant’s primary argument in support of his motion was that the plaintiff was “inconsistent in her evidence, and has a poor memory.” And since the testimony of the third-party witness favours his account of the accident, it should be clear to the court that he was not at fault.
Witness Consistency & Credibility in Court
The plaintiff stood by her own account of the accident. Furthermore, she questioned the “circumstances” of the third party witness coming forward. In any event, she submitted to the judge that sorting out witness credibility was a matter best left to a jury.
Justice Jill Copeland of the Court of Justice agreed with the plaintiff on this point. Based on the pre-trial record, the judge said she did “not have confidence that I can fairly make the necessary findings of fact on a summary judgment motion.” More specifically, she did not think the plaintiff was “such a poor witness as the defendant contends,” and the third-party witness testimony was not enough to “tip the credibility scales in the defendant’s favour.”
With respect to the plaintiff’s credibility, Justice Copeland said she was “consistent on the core of her evidence about how the collision happened.” The plaintiff maintained that she never saw the third-party witness at the intersection, she recalled stopping at the intersection, and she observed the defendant hitting her while making his turn.
To the extent there were inconsistencies in the plaintiff’s testimony, the judge said it related to “peripheral things,” such as how long she stopped before proceeding into the intersection. While such inconsistencies are relevant to determining the “credibility and reliability” of the plaintiff’s overall testimony, they were not serious enough to warrant summary judgment.
Indeed, Justice Copeland noted that the defence’s testimony had its own consistency issues. As noted above, the third-party witness testified that he saw the plaintiff’s car approaching the intersection. Yet the defendant testified in his own examination for discovery that he never saw the plaintiff’s car–and he gave contradictory explanations as to why.
As the judge explained, this “raises issues” as to the defendant’s culpability for failing to keep a “sufficient lookout” before starting his turn. Additionally, the defendant’s timeline of the accident suggests he stopped for two to three minutes at the intersection, which the judge observed was “a very long time to make a left turn.”
Corroborating Witness Credibility
What about the third-party witness who purportedly corroborated the defendant’s account of the accident? Here, too, the judge said she had doubts about the witness’s “credibility and reliability.” While Justice Copeland did not say she did not believe the witness, she nevertheless found “genuine issues” related to his testimony that, once again, precluded a decision on summary judgment.
Among these “issues,” the judge said, was the fact that the witness “waited at least 30 minutes after the collision” before speaking with the defendant. The witness said the delay was because he wanted to see if the police would be called to take a formal accident report–otherwise, he did not want to involve himself in a “minor” accident. While Justice Copeland said this explanation was “plausible,” it did raise suspicions, since, as noted previously, the plaintiff testified that she never saw the witness prior to the accident.
Ultimately, this case comes down to which witnesses are telling the truth. Justice Copeland said there was no forensic evidence from the accident introduced or a police report to provide an at-the-scene account of what took place. All of this creates a “genuine issue requiring a trial.” In other words, Justice Copeland will let a jury sort things out.
What Steps Should You Take Following an Ontario Car Accident?
One takeaway from this decision is the importance of obtaining and introducing corroborating evidence. Even if you know that the other driver caused the accident, knowing something and proving something in court are two different things.
Assuming your injuries do not require emergency medical attention, you should always make an effort in the moments following an accident to gather as much information as possible. Identify potential witnesses and take down their contact information. Photograph the accident scene with your smartphone, tablet, or camera. And contact the police to get an accident report if possible.
And of course, you should call an Ontario personal injury lawyer who can advise you of your legal rights. Call Preszler Injury Lawyers today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our car accident lawyers.