August 23 2017

The Impact of Convictions for Criminal or Traffic Offences on Personal Injury Actions

Bottom line – this will be a gift to you and your personal injury lawyer.

The other driver either being convicted of or pleading guilty to a criminal offence, such as impaired driving, or a traffic offence, such as failure to stop at a stop sign, will go a long way to proving the liability (fault) of the other driver in causing the motor vehicle accident, and thus go a long way to proving their liability for your damages suffered.

Impaired Driving

Take the impaired driving situation, for example. If the other driver is found guilty of impaired driving, under the Alberta Evidence Act, their conviction can be admitted as proof of the underlying facts in your civil trial for damages. Some cases go so far as to state that there will be an inference of negligence drawn from their conviction or admission of culpability. Some courts will also look to see whether they were represented by legal counsel at the time they either were convicted or pled guilty to the criminal offence, and indeed whether there was plea-bargaining in the process leading up to a guilty plea, as is illustrated by this Alberta case dealing with damages claimed for an assault. If so, some courts find that this legal representation will strengthen the inference of negligence in the personal injury trial.

Canadian cases where criminal culpability of the other driver for impaired driving result in a finding of negligence on the part of the other driver in personal injury actions date back many years. For example, in this 1994 case from Nova Scotia, a young woman, on the day of a family reunion, was a passenger in a car driven by an impaired driver. Even though the road conditions were good and the accident occurred on a straight section of the highway, the impaired driver skided off the road and the woman was thrown from the vehicle. She suffered significant injuries, including debilitating brain injuries, and was no longer able to work. The driver was charged with operating a motor vehicle while impaired and he entered a guilty plea. The judge in this case concluded that the driver’s negligence was proven as his intoxication was proven.

In this 1994 New Brunswick case, a young man was walking on the wrong side of the highway, wearing dark clothing, and he himself had been drinking on the night of the accident. The motor vehicle driver was egregiously impaired and struck the young man, causing significant injuries to his knee and right leg. As a result of the injuries, he was set behind in his high school studies and graduated much later than he would have. The driver was found to be 75% responsible for the accident as it was caused primarily by his impairment. The judge noted that the driver had pled guilty to a charge of impaired driving and that his blood-alcohol was significantly above the legal limit. What is of further interest in this case is that the judge gave significant weight to the evidence of the police officer who was at the scene of the accident. He drew diagrams and took photographs, and this evidence was also extremely helpful in proving the negligence of the driver.

When Accidents Overlap with a Conviction for a Traffic Offence

An Alberta case illustrates that conviction for a traffic offence can also be helpful in establishing the liability of the other driver. In this case the defendant only came to a rolling stop at a stop sign and then entered the highway without further checking that the road was clear. The plaintiff was travelling at about 100 km/h on the highway, and could not respond in time to avoid a collision. When the RCMP attended the accident site, they charged the defendant with violation of the Highway Traffic Act for failure to come to a complete stop. The defendant paid the fine, and was therefore held in the civil trial to have admitted guilt for the offence charged. The attending RCMP officer had taken photographs and measurements of the accident site and these were of subsequent assistance to the accident reconstruction experts called by the plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer. The fact that the defendant driver had breached the Highway Traffic Act gave rise to a finding of negligence against him and liability of the defendant was established.

A conviction or guilty plea of the other driver can be very helpful to a plaintiff in a personal injury accident in other situations as well. For example, if the defendant driver is convicted or pleads guilty to a traffic offence, this can be taken as an admission that the defendant was driving the vehicle, in case that was an issue in the personal injury trial. Another issue that frequently crops up in personal injury trials is whether the driver was driving with the consent of the owner of the vehicle. If the driver was driving with consent the owner can be held to be liable for the damages of the plaintiff in the personal injury action as well. Often conviction or admission of guilt in a criminal or traffic offence can give rise to a trial judge’s conclusion that the driver was driving with the consent of the owner, and thus establish liability of the owner of the vehicle for the damages suffered by the plaintiff.

What Happens if the Other Driver is Acquitted?

But what if the other driver is acquitted of the criminal or traffic offence? Does this mean that they will be released from a finding of liability in the personal injury trial? A recent British Columbia case suggests not. In this case the trial judge noted the difference in the burdens of proof in a criminal and a civil proceeding – criminal culpability must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas civil liability is proven on a balance of probabilities. He therefore stated that acquittal on the higher criminal burden of proof did not necessarily lead to the conclusion that there was also no liability civilly. Further, the judge concluded that the issues in the criminal and the civil trials would not be the same, and therefore the defence of “issue estoppel” would not be available to the defendant in the civil action. The judge held that the acquittal in the criminal proceeding was not conclusive, and that he would assess liability in the civil proceeding independently. In this case, liability of the defendant driver was found and damages for the significant injuries suffered by the young man in the motor vehicle accident was awarded.

If you or a loved one has suffered injuries as a result of a situation in which the other party has been charged criminally or with a traffic offence, please CONTACT US and we can review the situation with you and take steps to ensure that your damages are fully compensated.