In assessing damages following a car accident, a British Columbia judge will carefully scrutinize the victim’s pre-accident medical condition, including any injuries from previous accidents. Additionally, if there are any “intervening events” between the accident and the date of trial that affect the victim’s health, that too may affect a judge’s analysis related to causation.
Basically, anything that might explain a plaintiff’s injuries aside from the accident itself may be cited as grounds for limiting the amount of damages a plaintiff can recover from a negligent defendant.
Consider this recent decision by the British Columbia Court of Appeal: This personal injury case is somewhat unusual.
As described by the original trial judge, the plaintiff “has an unusually complex medical history.” That may be understating matters. According to court records, the plaintiff was injured in a 2006 pedestrian accident, a 2010 rear-end car accident, two slip-and-fall accidents in 2011, a second rear-end accident in 2011, and a third rear-end accident in 2014.
The present appeal only concerned the 2011 and 2014 car accidents. In the 2011 incident, the plaintiff suddenly swerved while travelling on Highway 1 to “avoid hitting a grey car in front of her.” In doing so, the plaintiff still nicked the back of the grey car. But then a third vehicle–a truck–also swerved to avoid the grey car and ended up rear-ending the plaintiff instead.
The 2014 accident was relatively straightforward. A driver rear-ended the plaintiff. The driver admitted liability.
The plaintiff sued the negligent driver in the 2014 accident as well as the truck driver from the 2011 accident. Both cases were tried together in B.C. Supreme Court by Justice Anthony Saunders. He ultimately awarded the plaintiff damages of approximately $34,000 against the driver in the 2011 accident and about $9,300 against the driver in the 2014 accident.
The plaintiff only appealed the 2011 award, arguing the amount of damages awarded was too low.
As both Justice Saunders and the Court of Appeal explained, the 2011 accident was actually two collisions–the plaintiff striking the back of the grey car, and the defendant rear-ending the plaintiff. The plaintiff was “entirely at fault for the first of the two collisions,” according to Justice Saunders, while the plaintiff and defendant shared responsibility for the second collision. The judge assessed the plaintiff’s liability for this second part of the accident at 20%.
As for damages, the plaintiff argued at trial that both the 2011 and 2014 defendants should be “jointly and severally liable” for the cumulative injuries she suffered as a result of both accidents. In other words, both defendants should be 100 percent liable for the entire judgment.
Justice Saunders said that was not an option in this case because he already determined the plaintiff was partially liable for the 2014 accident. When there is “contributory negligence” on the part of a personal injury plaintiff, B.C. law requires the trial court to apportion damages among all of the responsible parties.
On top of this legal restriction, the court also needed to consider the plaintiff’s extensive medical history, including the multiple prior accidents mentioned above. The objective in awarding damages here was to restore the plaintiff to the position she would have been in but for the 2011 and 2014 accidents. This was obviously complicated by all those previous accidents.
Compounding all this was Justice Saunders’ findings regarding the plaintiff’s credibility as a witness. The trial court described the plaintiff as an “extremely poor historian” who “had difficulty giving a coherent account of events.” At certain points, her testimony “seemed histrionic.”
Although the judge did not question the plaintiff’s basic honesty, he nevertheless found that “both the manner in which she expressed herself and the difficulties she had in doing so certainly had an adverse impact on the reliability, and therefore the persuasiveness, of her evidence.”
Given all this, Justice Saunders still found the 2011 accident caused a “significant aggravation” of the plaintiff’s existing pain, which in turn reduced her “resiliency, in terms of her ability to recover from the physical and mental (psychiatric and psychological) effects of future trauma, though to a relatively modest degree.”
The Court of Appeal took no issue with Justice Saunders’ handling or assessment of damages. The trial court appropriately “took into account [the plaintiff’s] pre-existing conditions” and “tried his best to fairly assess damages, which was a complex task in the circumstances.” That the plaintiff disagreed with this assessment was not sufficient grounds for overturning it.
One of the tragic elements of this case is what Justice Saunders described as the “psychologically fragile state” of the plaintiff both before and after the 2011 accident. In addition to the plaintiff’s multiple physical traumas in recent years, the trial court noted she also suffered a “traumatic childhood” in her native Kenya before immigrating to Canada.
However, there was no “direct medical evidence” introduced at trial regarding the plaintiff’s pre-2010 psychiatric history, and as discussed earlier, Justice Saunders noted the plaintiff’s mental state may have compromised the accuracy and reliability of her testimony.
We often overlook the importance of mental health care following a car accident. But even a seemingly “minor” collision is a trauma. It is not uncommon for car accident victims to develop post-traumatic stress disorder and related psychiatric conditions. This reiterates the importance of seeking medical treatment following any kind of accident, even if you think you can just “get up and walk away” following a collision.
You should also get in touch with a qualified Vancouver car accident lawyer who can assist you in seeking damages from the negligent driver. Contact the Preszler Law Firm today to schedule a consultation with a member of our team. Our lawyers work exclusively on a contingency basis in personal injury cases, which means you pay us nothing unless we recover money for you.