Am I Responsible if a Passenger Grabs My Steering Wheel and Causes an Accident?
In most car accidents, it is not too difficult to determine liability. If a driver runs a red light, for example, and hits another car in the intersection, it is pretty clear who is at fault. There are cases involving more unusual fact patterns that require courts to answer somewhat trickier legal questions.
McKay v. Park: Insurance Companies Duel in Superior Court Over Accident Liability
For instance, what happens when a passenger suddenly takes the wheel–without the driver’s permission–and causes an accident that seriously injures a third party? An Ontario Superior Court justice recently confronted this exact scenario in a personal injury lawsuit, McKay v. Park, which involve not just the parties to an auto accident but also two insurance companies, each of whom want to shift responsibility to the other.
Here is basically what happened. In August 2013, a woman was driving her car with her boyfriend seated next to her in the passenger seat. The couple had been arguing for some time. At one point, the boyfriend got so angry that he “grabbed the steering wheel” from the girlfriend, which caused the car to spin out of control and hit another vehicle. A woman riding in the other vehicle sustained serious injuries in the accident and subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit against both the girlfriend-driver and the boyfriend-passenger. The passenger did not defend himself, leading the court to note him in default.
The driver had an auto insurance policy with State Farm at the time of the accident. She was the only listed driver on the policy, which included third-party liability coverage. The plaintiff has her own policy with TD Home and Auto Insurance, which included uninsured and underinsured motorist (UM) coverage. The passenger who grabbed the steering wheel did not apparently have any insurance of his own.
Before the Superior Court, State Farm and TD fought over which of them was potentially liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. State Farm’s position was that since the passenger seized control of the steering wheel just before the crash, he was solely responsible for the accident. Since the boyfriend did not act with his girlfriend’s permission, her policy with State Farm was not liable for coverage.
If State Farm’s position was correct, that would leave TD on-the-hook for the plaintiff’s damages as her UM carrier. So, it should come as no surprise that TD argued to the Court that State Farm was “acting in bad faith” and contrary to the driver’s interests. TD therefore opposed State Farm’s motion for summary judgment in favour of the driver on the question of liability for the accident.
Judge Grants Summary Judgment, Holds Driver (and Her Insurance Company) Not Responsible for Plaintiff’s Damages
On December 7, 2018, Justice Heather McArthur of the Superior Court allowed State Farm’s motion. At the outset, Justice McArthur did not accept TD’s view that State Farm acted in bad faith. This argument largely centered on the following hypothetical scenario:
- The Court finds the boyfriend took control of the car without the girlfriend’s consent.
- The girlfriend’s State Farm policy would therefore not cover the accident.
- TD would pay the plaintiff’s damages under her UM coverage.
- TD would then “bring a subrogated claim” against the boyfriend, i.e., it would seek to recover the money it paid to the plaintiff from him.
- This would “negatively affect” the girlfriend, since TD could go after any assets she jointly owned with the boyfriend as part of a civil judgment.
Justice McArthur dismissed this last point as “highly speculative.” Noting the boyfriend and girlfriend did “have a child together,” the Court nevertheless said there was no evidence before it that they had any “joint monies or property” that would be subject to TD’s hypothetical subrogation claim. Indeed, Justice McArthur said there was no evidence that the boyfriend and girlfriend maintained any joint accounts or “that they intermingle their funds in any way.”
In any event, Justice McArthur said the legal question when deciding a motion for summary judgment is “whether there is a genuine issue requiring a trial,” not whether State Farm acted in bad faith by taking a certain position in the litigation.
Turning to the summary judgment itself, Justice McArthur said there was no genuine issue as to whether or not the girlfriend was “in possession of her car at the time of the accident and thus liable.” She was not. The Court cited a 1970 decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, Bélanger v. The Queen, where a person was held liable for criminal negligence after he “grabbed the steering wheel” of a police car where he was a passenger and “turned it to the left, causing the cruiser to veer sharply to the left where it immediately collided head-on with an oncoming car, causing the death of one of its occupants.” Justice McArthur noted this is essentially what happened in the present case–the boyfriend “grabbed the steering wheel suddenly, impulsively and without [the girlfriend’s] consent,” thereby taking control of the car.
Likewise, the Court rejected TD’s position that there was a triable issue regarding the girlfriend’s “contributory” negligence. This argument was largely based on TD’s view that it was “reasonably foreseeable” to the girlfriend that her boyfriend might pull a stunt like this, given his history of “impulsive and violent” behaviour towards her during the course of their relationship. But as Justice McArthur explained, the boyfriend “had never attempted to grab the steering wheel before” the accident. While he “acted in a violent manner” towards the girlfriend in the past, those actions did not involve putting his own life–or that of other innocent motorists–in danger.
Consequently, the Court said the boyfriend was solely liable for the accident and that State Farm, as the girlfriend’s insurer, was not responsible for the damages.
Preszler Injury Lawyers can Help if You Have Been Injured in an Auto Accident
As you can see, even seemingly straightforward accidents can raise complex, novel questions of law. This is why it is critical to work with a personal injury lawyer following any car accident. Contact Preszler Injury Lawyers if you have been injured due to another driver’s negligence and would like to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our lawyers today.