An Ontario Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court decision which ruled a professional commercial driver is partly liable for a collision caused by an intoxicated driver of another vehicle.
The case serves as a warning to commercial operators that professional drivers appear to be held to a much higher legal standard by the courts than other drivers. Moreover, virtually any accident a commercial driver is involved in carries a degree of liability risk, regardless of which party is at fault.
The incident occurred in 2008 when an individual was driving himself and three passengers, after having spent the evening at various pubs. The intoxicated passenger car driver went through a red light at an intersection and collided with an ‘offline’ City of Ottawa OC Transpo bus, which had entered the intersection on a green light. The crash resulted in three fatalities and severe injuries for a fourth individual.
Although the passenger car driver’s estate admitted liability for the accident and the parties eventually agreed on the respondents’ damages, a trial judge also found the bus driver and the City of Ottawa to be 20% liable for damages because, in her opinion, he did not drive ‘defensively’ enough.
The judge expressly held the bus driver, as a professional trained operator, was obliged to “observe the standard of care of a reasonably prudent driver in like circumstances.”
Furthermore, the judge reasoned:
“Despite having the statutory right-of-way, a driver … is required to yield the right-of-way where, exercising proper care, circumstances dictate he ought not to exercise the statutory right-of-way. The statutory right-of-way ought not to be exercised in circumstances where:
- The driver becomes aware or ought to have been aware that the driver without the right-of-way is proceeding through the intersection on a red [light]; and
- If circumstances are such that the driver with the right-of-way has the opportunity to avoid a collision.
The bus driver and the City appealed the ruling, arguing the trial judge erred in her decision, specifically taking issue with the elevated standard she placed on the bus driver.
Instead, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the ruling, stating that “the general standard of care of a professional … is a question of law, but the content of the standard of care in a particular case is a question of fact” … In other words, Mr. Richer’s conduct may be judged through the lens of the “reasonable bus driver in like circumstances”.
In essence, the Appeals Court agreed, as a professional, the bus driver could have given up the right-of-way to avoid possible collision with other vehicles; as well as manoeuvre at a distance and in such a way so as not to preclude safe stopping or averting of a collision.
“We see no error in the trial judge’s consideration of (the bus driver’s) status as an experienced bus driver or in her treatment of this fact as relevant to the determination of the applicable standard of care to which (he) was bound at the time of the accident. Nor do we accept the appellants’ contention that the trial judge erred by relying on the (bus driver’s) status as a professional driver to improperly impose an inappropriate, elevated standard of care.”
The full Appeals Court ruling can be accessed here.