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Bonter v. Estate of Laird: Possession, Consent, and a Motor Vehicle Accident

Under Ontario law, the owner of a car or other motor vehicle can be held legally responsible for an accident even if he or she was not the driver. Basically, if another driver uses your car with your permission and causes a motor vehicle accident, the victims can file a personal injury lawsuit against you and seek damages. However, an owner may avoid liability if he or she can prove the driver acted took or used the car without his or her consent.

What qualifies as “consent”? For example, say you give someone your car keys to get something out of your vehicle. This person then decides to take the car out for a ride and causes an accident. Are you then liable for the accident even if you did not explicitly consent to letting the driver operate your vehicle on public roadways?

These are not hypothetical questions. A personal injury lawsuit now pending before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Bonter v. Estate of Laird, presents this exact scenario.

The Accident and Lawsuit

Here is a brief overview of the case. The defendant lives in an apartment complex on Stanley Street in Trenton, Ontario. On the morning in question, the defendant’s adult son and one of her friends were visiting the defendant’s apartment. The three of them then went out for coffee at Tim Horton’s, with the defendant driving her car to and from the shop.

After returning to the apartment, the friend said he left his cigarettes in the defendant’s car. The defendant then gave him her car keys so he could unlock the vehicle and retrieve his cigarettes. When the friend failed to return, the defendant realized he had, in fact, taken her car for a ride. The defendant contacted the police to report the vehicle as stolen.

Meanwhile, the driver was travelling northbound on Trenton Street, lost control of the vehicle, crossed into the opposite lane, and collided with another car. The friend died as a result of his injuries, and the driver of the other car (the plaintiff) was seriously injured. She subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit against the estate of the deceased driver as well as the defendant, alleging she was liable after giving the driver “consent” to use her vehicle.

The defendant maintained the driver did not have her consent to actually operate the vehicle–only, as noted above, to unlock the door and retrieve his cigarettes from inside. In response to this claim, the plaintiff named her own insurance company, State Farm, as a co-defendant. State Farm then filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that as a matter of law the defendant was liable for the accident.

The Judge’s Decision

Justice Patrick Hurley of the Superior Court dismissed State Farm’s motion for summary judgment in an April 25 decision. Summary judgment is generally appropriate when there is no “genuine issue for trial.” Put another way, a judge will not grant summary judgment when the disputed evidence could lead a judge or jury to find in favour of other side.

In this case, Justice Hurley said there were some key facts that remained in dispute. Obviously, the main point of contention in this case was whether or not the driver operated the defendant’s car with her consent.

On this issue, State Farm pointed to “portions of the police investigative file” prepared after the accident. State Farm said this report undermined the defendant’s claim that she only gave the driver the keys so he could get cigarettes out of the car. In fact, State Farm said the report made no mention of any cigarettes in the car following the accident. The report further suggested that the defendant did not report her car stolen until around 4 p.m. that day, which was several hours after the defendant gave the driver her keys.

The plaintiff objected to the consideration of this evidence, as it came in the form of an affidavit filed by a State Farm employee and not the officers involved. Justice Hurley agreed he could not “rely” on “hearsay evidence,” and added that investigative report in question actually made no mention of whether the police searched the vehicle for cigarettes after the accident. To the contrary, the report clearly stated the defendant “did not give” the driver permission “to drive the car.”

As to the larger issue, Justice Hurley rejected State Farm’s proposition that the mere act of giving someone your car keys automatically constitutes “consent” to drive the vehicle. That may be true in some cases. But the judge said Ontario law does not mandate “keys equal possession of the vehicle provided the transfer is consensual” in all cases. That said, there may be cases in which “handing over the keys to another person would constitute an abdication of the owner’s responsibility for the careful management of the vehicle and, if so, a court could find the owner liable.”

Indeed, Justice Hurley said it was still not clear at this stage of the litigation whether the defendant here had “abdicated” her responsibility. The judge noted that the driver “was still under the influence of alcohol” from drinking the night before when he arrived at the defendant’s apartment. When the driver asked for the defendant’s keys, she testified she responded by saying, “you’re just going to get your cigarettes, correct?” Justice Hurley said a jury could interpret this question “as an implicit acknowledgement of a suspicion that he might use the opportunity to drive the car.” For these and other reasons, the judge said it would not be appropriate to dispose of this case via summary judgment.

Contact Preszler Law Today if You Have Been Injured in a Auto Accident

Sorting out liability for a car accident is often no simple matter. As cases like this illustrate, the facts may lead to multiple interpretations of who is responsible. That is why it is critical to work with an experienced personal injury lawyer. Contact Preszler Law today if you have been injured in a motor vehicle accident and need to speak with a lawyer right away.