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Injuries Resulting from the Negligence of Unidentified Drivers

Victor Lewin - Thursday, December 15, 2011

Car accident victims often become injured as a result of the negligence of a driver who cannot be identified. Fortunately, Nova Scotia, like New Brunswick and PEI, has an insurance regime which grants compensation to such injured car accident victims. When a person is injured as a result of the negligence of an unidentified driver, the person's "Section D" insurance policy becomes engaged.

The relevant insurance provision reads:

The insurer agrees to pay all sums that: (a) A person insured under this policy is legally entitled to recover from the owner or driver of an uninsured automobile or unidentified automobile as damages for bodily injuries resulting from an accident involving an automobile.

The typical scenario under which this insurance provision is triggered is a "hit and run", where the victim is injured by a driver who then drives away and cannot later be identified. These situations are relatively straight-forward.

A more complex scenario occurs when a victim is injured as a result of a foreign object lying loose on a roadway and flying into the victim's vehicle (usually being projected from the tires of another vehicle). These scenarios are usually highly contested, with insurance companies arguing that the mere existence of the foreign object on the roadway is no evidence of negligence of an unidentified driver.

In such situations, the case law maintains that the car accident victim has an onus to establish facts from which the Court may reasonably draw the inference that the negligence of the driver of an unidentified vehicle was the probable cause of foreign object lying loose on the highway. The burden of proof is whether it is more likely than not that the driver of an unidentified vehicle's negligence constituted the cause of the plaintiff's injury.

As is the case in every claim involving debris lying on a roadway, the procurement of direct evidence of negligence is impossible. In circumstances such as this, plaintiffs must prove their claim using circumstantial evidence. The principles are well-established for assessing liability where the evidence is circumstantial.

In the oft-cited decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Montreal Tramways Co. v. Léveillé, [1933] S.C.R. 456 (S.C.C.), the Court considered the role circumstantial evidence plays in meeting the burden of proof and stated at para. 35:

The general principle in accordance with which in cases like the present the sufficiency of the evidence is to be determined was stated by Lord Chancellor Loreburn in Richard Evans & Co., Limited v. Astley, [1911] A.C. 678 as follows:
It is, of course, impossible to lay down in words any scale or standard by which you can measure the degree of proof which will suffice to support a particular conclusion of fact. The applicant must prove his case. This does not mean that he must demonstrate his case. If the more probable conclusion is that for which he contends, and there is anything pointing to it, then there is evidence for a court to act upon. Any conclusion short of certainty may be miscalled conjecture or surmise but courts, like individuals, habitually act upon a balance of probabilities.

Once the Plaintiff has established that it likely came from the undercarriage of a motor vehicle, the fact that the car part fell off the vehicle and onto the highway will be sufficient to justify the a prima facie case of negligence against an "unidentified driver". A similar ruling was made by the British Columbia Court of Appeal in Lee v. Insurance Corp. of British Columbia, 1986 CarswellBC 111.

The deceased driver in Lee, supra, was driving on a highway when witnesses say he suddenly plunged over an embankment. The cause of the accident was unknown. The initial theory was that the deceased had fallen asleep at the wheel. Days later, police discovered a foreign car part (a detached trailer hitch) on the floor of the deceased's car.

Based on the presence of this foreign car part in the deceased's car, the family of the deceased surmised "that the wheels of the eastbound semi-trailer truck had thrown up the trailer hitch from the road surface and that this projectile had penetrated the windshield striking Kelly in the face." They brought a claim against the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia and argued that the accident resulted from the negligence of an "unidentified driver".

Insurance company denied the claim. There remained alternate explanations for the cause of the accident: the deceased could have fallen asleep, he could have simply lost control of his vehicle, etc. Furthermore, the insurance company argued that even if it was accepted that the car part likely caused the accident, there was no evidence of negligence on the part of an unidentified driver. It was argued that the car part could have fallen on the road due to vandalism, for example. This argument was rejected by the Court of Appeal.

Discussing whether the existence of the foreign car part in the deceased's car (likely previously on the road) established a prima facie case of negligence, the Court stated at para. 11:

In my view, in the absence of an explanation, the fact of its falling off the vehicle and onto the roadway is sufficient to justify the conclusion that most probably the driver was negligent. That does not happen " 'if those who have the management use proper care' " and " 'it affords reasonable evidence, in the absence of explanation by the defendant, that the accident arose from want of care'

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