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Is an Impaired Driver Always Liable for a Car Accident?

When you read about a motor vehicle accident in the press, you may be tempted to jump to conclusions about who is responsible. For instance, let us say you read that two cars collided in an intersection. According to the initial reports, one of the drivers had been drinking and was possibly impaired. You might conclude from that limited information that the drunk driver caused the accident.

That is not necessarily the case, however. Although Ontario law defines “impaired driving” as operating a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of at least 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood (or 0.08%), that does not mean an impaired driver is automatically liable for civil damages in an accident. There may be a number of other factors involved, which may actually end up exonerating the impaired driver by shifting the liability to other parties.

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Smith v. Safranyos

Here is a recent decision from the Ontario Court of Appeal, Smith v. Safranyos, which illustrates this exact point. This lawsuit began with what the Court of Appeal described as a “horrendous two car collision that occurred in the City of Hamilton at the intersection of Upper Centennial Parkway and Green Mountain Road.” The victims were four children who were riding in one of the cars. The defendants were the two drivers–Ms. Safranyos and Mr. McHugh–as well as the City of Hamilton itself, for reasons that will be made clear in a moment.

The victims were in Safranyos’ car. She had taken the children to a drive-in movie theatre located on Green Mountain Road. After the movie ended around 1 a.m., Safranyos left the theatre and headed for the nearby intersection with Upper Centennial Parkway. Meanwhile, McHugh was driving his own vehicle northbound on the parkway and heading for the same intersection.

At the time of the accident, there was a stop sign located in the westbound lane of Green Mountain Road, about “10 meters back from the eastern edge of the intersection,” according to court records. There was no stop line on the road, however, as the City of Hamilton repaved the road three years earlier and had not repainted the line.

According to her own testimony, Safranyos signaled a left turn as she approached the intersection. She then stopped at the sign, “looked left once,” and concluding it was safe to proceed, she “rolled towards the intersection.” As she accelerated into the intersection, her vehicle collided with the one driven by McHugh.

The victims and their families subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit. The case was tried before a judge sitting without a jury. After hearing all of the evidence, the judge assigned 50% responsibility for the accident to Safranyos, and 25% each to McHugh and the City of Hamilton. McHugh and Hamilton then appealed to the Court of Appeal.

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Court of Appeal: Trial Judge “Misused” Evidence Regarding Driver’s Alcohol Consumption

At this point, you might be asking why the judge found against McHugh and the City. With respect to McHugh, the trial judge determined he had consumed alcohol on the night of the accident and that this “affected his reaction and perception time, his speed, [and] his inattention” to the road. In other words, had McHugh not been impaired due to alcohol consumption, he could have avoided the accident.

There was certainly no dispute that McHugh had consumed alcohol that evening, but there was disagreement as to the amount. At trial, McHugh testified he was returning home from a party, where had “two beers.” An expert toxicologist told the trial judge that “based on subsequent blood alcohol readings taken from Mr. McHugh,” his actual BAC was between 66 and 82 milligrams, which straddled the 80-milligram threshold for impaired driving.

There was also evidence that McHugh was speeding just before the collision. The posted speed limit near the intersection was 70 kilometers per hour. Based on the evidence at trial, the judge concluded that McHugh was “going at least 85 kilometers an hour at the time of impact,” which, combined with his drinking, was a “cause of the accident.”

The Court of Appeal disagreed with the trial judge’s reasoning and conclusions. Justice David M. Paciocco, writing for the appeals court, noted the immediate cause of the accident was Safranyos’ “failure to stop her vehicle before entering the intersection” and seeing or yielding to McHugh as he approached. Indeed, the testimony confirmed that there was “only a split second from the time Ms. Safranyos entered the intersection until the collision.” So, even if McHugh had been driving at the speed limit, he still would not have sufficient time to react and avoid hitting Safranyos’ vehicle and injuring her passengers.

As for McHugh’s alcohol consumption, Justice Paciocco said the trial judge “misused” this evidence to improperly blame him for the accident. Even if McHugh’s BAC was sufficient to charge him with the criminal offence of impaired driving, that did not prove he operated his vehicle in an unsafe or reckless manner at the moment of the accident. In fact, the Court of Appeal noted that “the police and hospital records taken on the night of the accident did not indicate that Mr. McHugh was impaired.”

Holding All Responsible Parties Liable for a Car Accident

Finally, you may still be wondering why the City of Hamilton was also found partially responsible for this accident. As mentioned earlier, the City had failed to repaint the stop line on Green Mountain Road. There was also a guardrail along that eastern side of Upper Centennial Parkway that, according to expert testimony at trial, created a “partially obstructed sightline” from Green Mountain Road. In essence, the trial judge found that due to the City’s failure to properly maintain its own roads, there was “ambiguity” as to where Safranyos was “required to stop” before entering the intersection. It was also possible she failed to see McHugh approaching because of the partial obstruction created by the guardrail. The Court of Appeal dismissed the City’s appeal related to these findings.

As you can see, determining liability for a car accident is often more difficult than you might think. This is why it is critical to consult with an Ontario personal injury lawyer following any type of car accident. Call Preszler Inury Lawyers today if you would like to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our lawyers.



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