Reasonable Doubt: A cold, hard look at our icy roads

Stay safe out there! Kevin Yee talks about the legal consequences of this winter’s icy roads on a car accident.

The Lower Mainland has been caught up in the longest cold snap in recent memory. For the first time in 20 years, you can go skating or have a game of shinny on Trout Lake. There are reports of ice floe on the Fraser River!

That said, our streets have turned into sheets of ice. For drivers, the roads are treacherous. Cars are slipping and sliding every which way like rocks on a curling rink. Even with drivers trying to be cautious, such rare weather conditions are leading to accidents that we normally wouldn’t see.

When accidents happen in strange conditions, do the courts assign fault any differently?

First, let’s take a step back. Fault for a motor-vehicle accident in a civil case is based on the law of negligence. The idea of negligence is that we all are required to act with a reasonable amount of care to avoid harming others. If we don’t exercise this amount of care and this causes harm to someone, then that person can claim damages caused by the negligent act. The person who is negligent is liable for these damages in a civil case.

To look at how fault might be assigned in the current weather conditions, let’s look at a common type of accident before the courts: the rear-end collision. The driver of the vehicle behind is generally seen as at fault because drivers are expected to watch out for hazards ahead.

So is it the case that a rear-end collision is always going to go 100 percent against the rear driver?

Not always. Under negligence law, it comes down to who did not exercise a reasonable amount of care in the circumstances. If the front vehicle made a reckless lane change or slammed the brakes just before getting rear-ended, a sharing of blame is possible. All relevant factors have to be considered.

Which brings us back to the issue of weather and road conditions. This can be very relevant.

Let’s take black ice. That factor alone may be enough for the courts to take a completely different view of fault. That is because of a legal defence—one not often used—that argues the accident was not caused by anyone’s negligence.

To illustrate, we can use the rear-end situation. The rear driver argues that he or she was careful enough by slowing down but the black ice caused the car to slide right into the car in front. In other words, the accident happened despite exercising the legally expected amount of care. This is to say that it was an “accident” in the truest sense of the word.

This kind of defence can succeed where the courts don’t feel they the accident was caused by carelessness. Either there was no negligent driving to begin with or the accident was inevitable in the circumstances. In this situation, the rear driver would not be liable. Potentially, no one would be.

These outcomes are not common but do arise in black-ice scenarios. They come up in others, too. For example, perhaps a deer leaps onto the road and scares a driver into colliding with another vehicle. Perhaps a driver suddenly loses consciousness due to an unknown medical condition and drifts into another vehicle. Arguably, there is no negligence to begin with, or the accident was bound to happen even if reasonable care was exercised.

This may seem surprising. After all, if one person is clearly not at fault in an accident, surely the other person is. Isn’t someone always to blame?

In motor-vehicle accidents, those defences show it is not always the case. Sometimes the courts will accept that accidents are simply accidental and that no one is to blame.

A word of caution: you should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.