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Is the Driver of the Rear Vehicle Always Responsible for A Rear-End Accident in Ontario?

When a rear-end car accident occurs, Ontario law starts with the presumption that the rear driver was responsible. This means that if a personal injury case goes to trial, the driver of the rear vehicle must prove he or she did not cause the rear-end accident.

Among other things, this includes proving the driver maintained a “reasonable distance” from the forward vehicle, that the driver kept control of the vehicle at all times, and that the driver was traveling at a speed that is “reasonable relative” to the forward vehicle, anticipating that said vehicle may need to stop for any reason.

This is actually quite a difficult burden for the rear driver to carry. Unless there is evidence that the driver of the front vehicle (or some third party) committed some unusual or unexpected negligent act, Ontario courts strongly favor holding the rear driver liable for an accident.

In some cases, this presumption of fault leads judges to award summary judgment to plaintiffs on the question of liability, deciding the case as a matter of law without going to trial.

  • Once a plaintiff in a motor vehicle accident case has proven that a rear-end accident occurred, the burden of proof shifts to the defendant (the rear driver) to prove he or she was not negligent.
  • As always, the parties’ credibility in rear-end accidents in Ontario is critical when a court or jury attempts to determine who was at fault for the accident.
  • If an expert’s testimony is based on a witness’s non-credible claims, the expert’s conclusions will be discounted.

Ozimkowski v. Raymond: Judge Does Not Find Defendant’s Testimony Credible in Rear-End Accident Case

This is precisely what happened in a case currently before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Ozimkowski v. Raymond. The plaintiff and the defendant were involved in a rear-end accident in Ontario that took place in January 2012. The parties were both traveling on a rural road in Lanark County.

On the day of the accident, the plaintiff left her job to go home. It was around 5:15 in the afternoon, the weather was “dark and raining heavily,” and the roads were “very slippery.” The plaintiff’s route took her over a hill. As she went over the hill and began to descend, she saw flashing emergency lights at the bottom of the hill (which turned out to be emergency personnel responding to another car accident).

The plaintiff then quickly applied her brakes because, as she later testified, “the roads were slippery and I couldn’t see what was in front of me.”

At the same time, the defendant was travelling behind the plaintiff. He saw the plaintiff stopping in front of him and moved to apply his own brakes. Unfortunately, his vehicle collided with the plaintiff’s Jeep. When the plaintiff exited her vehicle immediately following the collision, she slipped and fell on the icy road.

The plaintiff subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit against the defendant. The defendant filed a third-party action against Lanark County, alleging its actions contributed to the accident. On the main issue of the defendant’s liability, the plaintiff moved for summary judgment, asking the court to resolve the issue without requiring a full trial.

Court Grants Front Driver’s Motion for Summary Judgment

Following a two-day hearing, Justice Ryan Bell of Ontario Superior Court granted the plaintiff’s motion in a September 28, 2018, order. In his Reasons for Decision, Justice Bell explained that there was no “genuine issue requiring a trial” as to the defendant’s liability.

Noting the defendant bears the burden under Ontario law of “disproving his own negligence,” Justice Bell summarized the evidence as follows:

  • On the evening of the accident, the road where the plaintiff and defendant were travelling was “icy,” dark, and subject to freezing rain.
  • The distance from the top of the hill to where the accident occurred was about 140 metres.
  • The plaintiff saw the emergency lights and brought her vehicle to a “controlled stop.” She did not engage in “aggressive braking” or take other unreasonable or unsafe actions.
  • The defendant, in contrast, did not see the emergency lights flashing from the top of the hill. He did not react until he saw the plaintiff’s brake lights come on. At that point, he was travelling at a speed of between 40 and 50 kilometres per hour.
  • Critically, the defendant offered conflicting testimony regarding his following distance–i.e., how far he was following behind the plaintiff when he started his own braking procedure.

On this last point, Justice Bell said there was “no air of reality” as to the defendant’s testimony. In fact, the defendant changed his story three times:

  • During a 2014 examination for discovery, the defendant estimated he applied his brakes “no more than 150 metres away and no less than 100 [metres].”
  • In a follow-up examination in 2016, the defendant said his following distance was only about “20 metres.”
  • A year after that, the defendant revised that figure again to “maybe six car lengths.”

Regardless of what the truth was, Justice Bell reiterated that the burden of proof was on the defendant, and he had simply failed to meet it.

Defendant’s Expert Testimony Insufficient

Much of the defendant’s case was built on expert testimony. Indeed, it was expert reports that led the defendant to continually revise his story with respect to following distance, as he conceded before the trial court he was “not good with estimating distances after an event has occurred.”

But even the defendant’s expert testimony did not help him, Justice Bell concluded. The judge actually went so far as to suggest the expert evidence would not be admissible at a jury trial.

The main problem was that the defence experts based their analysis on the “unsubstantiated assumption” that the plaintiff was “braking aggressively” and did not give the defendant sufficient time to respond. Given the defendant himself was an “unreliable and not credible” witness as to what happened, the judge said the expert’s analysis contributed nothing to an assessment of liability.

Finally, Justice Bell rejected the defendant’s view that summary judgment “would not fully resolve the issue of liability” because of his third-party action against the County. As the Court noted, the County was not a party to the plaintiff’s lawsuit. Instead, the defendant brought a third-party action which, if successful, would force the County “pay the defendant some of the damages the defendant is required to pay to the plaintiff.”

That raises separate legal issues that would not–indeed, could not–be tried by a jury. Justice Bell therefore granted summary judgment on liability and ordered the plaintiff’s case to proceed to jury trial on damages.

Preszler Injury Lawyers can Help if You Have Been Hurt in a Rear-End Accident

As this case illustrates, Ontario courts impose a high bar for rear drivers to avoid liability for a rear-end accident. But you can never take anything for granted. If you were injured in a rear-end accident and need advice from a qualified Ontario personal injury lawyer, contact Preszler Injury Lawyers to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation today.

Source: CanLII

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