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Personal Injury - Expert Evidence

Victor Lewin - Wednesday, May 08, 2013

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal recently commented on the analysis used in determining the standard of care in a personal injury claim resulting from a motor vehicle accident and the need for expert evidence.

In Holland Carriers Ltd. v. MacDonald, one of the defendants, Holland Carriers Ltd., owned a logging truck that was operated by an employee by the name of Murray, also named as a defendant. The truck contained eight vertical stakes on each side of the trailer to keep the load in place. The stakes were tapered, sat in a tapered pocket and were held by a chain and an additional tie put on by Holland to secure them in place. The stakes were very heavy and could not be easily removed. While Murray was driving the truck on Highway 103, the left rearmost stake became dislodged and crashed into the windshield of the plaintiff's van.

The action contained a number of defendants including the manufacturer of the truck and the retailer from whom defendant Holland purchased the truck. At trial, the evidence revealed that the stake was allowed to escape the mooring because its chain snapped due to wear and tear. The trial judge went on to find that a reasonable inspection would have exposed the wear and tear and prevented the accident.

The first issue on appeal was whether the trial judge was able to identify the appropriate standard of care for inspection of logging trucks without expert evidence related to industry standards. The defendant Holland presented evidence that the truck was inspected every 2 weeks and the stakes and chains were examined at that time. Evidence was also presented that indicated that the back stakes and their corresponding chains could not be property examined without removing the stakes themselves. Given the weight of the stakes and the effort that would be required to remove them, this was not done. The trial judge ruled that not removing the back stakes and properly inspecting them was evidence of a breach of the standard of care.

On appeal, the defendant Holland argued that without evidence as to the industry standard, the judge could not conclude that a reasonable inspection regime would require removing the 2 back stakes. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument, stating that expert evidence is not always needed in order to determine the appropriate standard of care and often, common sense will be all that's needed. The Court of Appeal went on to cite previous jurisprudence which distinguished between technical and specialized subject matter that will require expert knowledge and that which will not. Conduct that accords with the recognized and acceptable practice of physicians will fall into the first category and require expert opinions whereas the proper standard of care for a hotel manager will likely fall into the latter (G & S Haulage Ltd. v. Park Place Centre Ltd., 2011 NSCA 29).

Holland went on to argue that without evidence as to the timing of inspections in the industry the Court could not determine the appropriate standard of care. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument, noting that Holland felt that it was important to inspect the other 14 stakes regularly and, therefore, it would be equally prudent to inspect the remaining back 2.

The Court of Appeal dismissed this ground of appeal, having found no legal error or palpable and overriding factual error.

The second ground of appeal was that of causation. Holland argued that even if it's duty of care had included inspection of the back 2 stakes through their removal, there was no finding as to the frequency of such inspections and, therefore, there was no proof that such inspections would have prevented theaccident. Specifically, Holland noted that there was no finding as to how often the inspection was required. The Court of Appeal noted that the argument may have had some merit if Holland had engaged in ANY inspection of the back stakes in the 22 months it had owned the truck; however no inspection had occurred despite the extreme driving conditions the truck underwent. The Court noted that the other 14 stakes were inspected every 2 weeks and had this been done for all stakes, the accident could have been avoided.

As such, the Court of Appeal dismissed the second ground of appeal.

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