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How Ontario Juries Address Questions of Contributory Negligence

One of the more complex issues that may need to be addressed following an Ontario car accident is determining fault when two or more parties are involved. Take a simple, two-vehicle collision in which each driver insists the other caused the accident. What happens if a judge or jury decides both sides were liable to some degree?

Under the Ontario Negligence Act, the court is expected to determine “if fault or negligence is found on the part of the plaintiff that contributed to the damage.” Any damage award is then apportioned accordingly. So, taking our simple two-car accident example, if the jury decides the plaintiff was 20% at-fault, the defendant would only be liable for 80% of the plaintiff’s total damages. (In cases in which it is impossible to determine relative fault, the Negligence Act declares each side is equally responsible.)

Patterson v. Peladeau: Beware of Jurors Conducting ‘Internet Research’

A plaintiff is more likely to be found contributorily negligent if he or she committed a traffic violation prior to the accident. For example, an Ontario jury recently determined that the plaintiff in a pedestrian accident lawsuit was 73% at-fault after he was struck by a motorist. The plaintiff objected to the verdict because he alleged that the jury improperly relied on outside information in reaching its decision, but the presiding judge denied a mistrial on those grounds.

The accident itself occurred in the early morning hours during a period of “full darkness,” according to court records. The plaintiff had been driving his van when it became stuck in a snowbank. The plaintiff then walked to his home, drove back to the van’s location in his truck, and used the truck to pull the van out.

The plaintiff parked his truck in the roadway itself. He was standing next to the truck when the defendant, traveling down the road in his own vehicle, came upon the scene. The defendant swerved to avoid a collision, but in doing so he still managed to “clip” the plaintiff’s truck and strike the plaintiff himself. As a result of this impact, the plaintiff suffered a fractured pelvis and other serious injuries.

The plaintiff subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit against the defendant. At trial, the main issue was the relative liability of the parties. The defence argued the plaintiff had created a “dangerous condition” in violation of the Ontario Highway Traffic Act. Specifically, the Highway Traffic Act states that “no person shall park or stand a vehicle on a highway in such a manner as to interfere with the movement of traffic.” Here, the defendant pointed to the fact the plaintiff had parked his truck in the roadway, thereby blocking the defendant’s vehicle, and was in fact standing on the road when he was struck.

The presiding judge, Justice Charles T. Hackland of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, instructed the jury that it was “manifestly obvious” the plaintiff had “parked his truck on a highway in such a manner as to interfere with the movement of traffic,” in violation of the Highway Traffic Act. Under the circumstances, the plaintiff’s actions were negligence as a matter of law unless he was “parking on the road to deal with an emergency,” which was not the case here.

There was no question that the plaintiff committed contributory negligence, and the judge left it to the jury to decide the actual percentages. Based on Justice Hackland’s instructions, the jury proceeded to deliberate for five days before returning the verdict noted above.

Judge Satisfied Jury Followed His Instructions, Denies Mistrial

Shortly after deliberations began, one of the jurors took it upon his own initiative to conduct “some legal research,” according to Justice Hackland. The juror identified a regulation that he believed was relevant to the determination of fault in the case. The juror proceeded to discuss this regulation with the other jurors, which in turn led the jury to ask Justice Hackland about the issue.

Justice Hackland replied the regulation was “irrelevant” and should not be considered at all by the jury moving forward with its deliberations. He also reminded the jury it was not allowed to conduct “any further internet research pertaining to the trial.” But after the jury returned its verdict holding the plaintiff mostly at-fault, he moved for a mistrial “on the basis of trial unfairness resulting from the jury’s exposure to the internet information.”

As the judge explained, a mistrial is only granted “as a last resort” in civil cases. Here, the judge said he issued the jury an appropriate “correcting charge” to ignore the stray juror’s outside research. The judge was satisfied this was sufficient to avoid any prejudice to the plaintiff, especially since the jury “promptly disclosed” its wayward discovery to the Court and actively sought instruction.

The plaintiff still pushed back, pointing to the use of language in the jury’s verdict that appeared to mimic a term used in the irrelevant regulation discovered by the jury. The judge was not concerned about this. To the contrary, he said the jury properly relied on the Highway Traffic Act. Indeed, the regulation cited by the juror would have actually required apportioning 100% liability to the plaintiff, as opposed to the 73% liability actually found by the jury.

Working with a Toronto Pedestrian Accident Lawyer is Critical

Apportioning fault for an auto accident is highly dependent on the facts of each individual case. As you can imagine, there is no precise manner to decide whether a party is 73% liable versus, say, 70% or 55% liable. Jurors draw these somewhat arbitrary lines based on the relative strengths of each party’s presentations at trial.

This is why it is critical to work with a qualified Toronto motor vehicle accident lawyer if you have been in injured in any kind of crash and need to seek damages against a negligent driver. The defence may do everything in its power to shift the blame to you. You have the right to stand up for yourself. Contact Preszler Injury Lawyers today.


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