Sorting Out Liability for a BC Car Accident

Liability for a car accident often focuses on whether one or multiple drivers failed to obey applicable traffic laws. Consider the simple case of a driver who runs a red light and collides with another vehicle that is lawfully in the intersection. There would be no question the driver who ignored the signal–and thus committed a traffic violation–was at fault for the accident.

Many accident cases are not that simple. Both drivers may have committed an infraction. In that scenario, a judge or jury must apportion fault, deciding which driver’s traffic violation is more serious. This can be further complicated if it is not clear whether or not one of the parties actually violated any laws in the first place.

Jones v. Frohlick: What Happens When a Jury Hears About a Withdrawn Traffic Ticket?

The British Columbia Court of Appeal recently considered the question of whether or not a plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit was entitled to a new trial after the jury improperly heard evidence regarding a traffic ticket issued–but later withdrawn–following the accident that was the subject of the case.

The accident itself took place in December 2013 in Burnaby. The plaintiff was driving on a westbound road. The defendant was travelling on the same road in the eastbound direction. The plaintiff was in a left-turn lane and entered the intersection to, as your probably expected, execute a left turn. In this case, the plaintiff was trying to enter a shopping center parking lot.

While in the middle of the turn, the plaintiff crossed the eastbound lane where the defendant was driving. There was a collision between the two cars. The plaintiff suffered serious injuries in the accident. Among other things, the plaintiff’s medical records indicated a “displaced fracture of the sternum, and injuries to his knee, elbow, and neck.”

The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendant for negligence. The case was tried before a jury. Both drivers effectively blamed the other for the accident, meaning the jury had to resolve the issue of liability as well as what damages, if any, were owed to the plaintiff.

Aside from the parties themselves, three witnesses also testified in court. The witness testimony itself was inconsistent. One witness said in a statement to the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) that the plaintiff had “slowly edged forward into the [defendant’s] lane but did not come to a complete stop before entering the lane.” But at trial the same witness said he could not recall for certain whether the plaintiff had stopped or not before entering the defendant’s lane. In contrast, a second witness, who was driving a nearby bus at the time of the accident, emphatically stated that the plaintiff did not stop before entering the defendant’s lane and made an aggressive turn.

Of critical importance here, during the plaintiff’s testimony before the jury, defence counsel cross-examined him about his interaction with the police following the accident. The plaintiff acknowledged the constable at the scene issued him a ticket for “failure to yield.” The plaintiff later disputed the ticket in court, with the assistance of a lawyer, and it was dismissed.

Defence counsel attempted to solicit an admission from the plaintiff that he somehow improperly influenced the constable to “let the ticket go” because it might somehow hurt his civil lawsuit against the defendant. The plaintiff denied this was the case. Eventually, the trial judge shut down this line if inquiry, noting it was improper to ask the plaintiff to “speculate” on why the police constable “did or did not do something.”

In response to defence counsel’s actions, the plaintiff’s lawyer asked for a mistrial, noting the evidence regarding the dismissed ticket was “inflammatory and irrelevant.” The judge denied this request, but the Court did instruct the jury that “[n]either the fact of the initial ticket nor the fact of the subsequent dismissal is relevant to your determination of liability here.” The judge also afforded the plaintiff the opportunity to cross-examine the constable on the ticket and its withdrawal, but he declined to do so.

After hearing all of the evidence and submissions, the jury determined the plaintiff was 85% liable for the accident. The defendant was only deemed 15% responsible. Additionally, the jury calculated the plaintiff’s damages for his pain and suffering and loss of income at roughly $30,000. This amount was reduced to account for his 85% liability, rendering the final award at just over $4,500.

Court of Appeal Finds Ticket Evidence Was Not “Inflammatory”

The plaintiff appealed. Before the Court of Appeal, he renewed his argument that the trial judge should have ordered a mistrial after the defence introduced evidence of the withdrawn traffic ticket. Once again, the plaintiff argued that any “probative value” this information might have had as evidence was outweighed by the “prejudicial effect” on the jury, which could not be resolved by the trial judge’s instruction.

The Court of Appeal rejected the plaintiff’s arguments. It held the instruction was more than sufficient to remedy any potential damage to the plaintiff’s interests. Indeed, the instruction “could not have been misunderstood by the jury as permitting them to consider the impugned evidence, not only in assessing the evidence as a whole, but also in assessing the credibility of the witnesses and of [the plaintiff’s] evidence in particular.” Given that the jury did award some damages to the plaintiff, that indicated the jury acted reasonably in properly assessing the totality of the evidence presented.

Get Help Investigating Your Car Accident

What probably hurt the plaintiff’s case more than the disclosure of the traffic ticket was the eyewitnesses who testified that the plaintiff entered the defendant’s lane. Juries are far more likely to credit impartial eyewitnesses over the testimony of the parties themselves. This is why it is important to thoroughly investigate any car accident before proceeding with a lawsuit. If you need help from an experienced Vancouver car accident lawyer with investigating the circumstances surrounding your recent crash, contact the Preszler Law Firm today.