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Posted on March 1st 2009 in Legal Articles

When is a Car Accident Not a Car Accident?

The Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled in two cases, Lumbermens Mutual Casualty Co v. Herbison and Citadel General Assurance Co. v. Vytlingam, that questioned the scope of auto insurance. Specifically, the Court was asked to consider the sufficiency of the connection between the acts that caused the plaintiffs’ injuries and the use of the wrongdoers’ vehicles?

The Herbison Case
The Facts
Herbison and his pal Wolfe decided to go deer hunting. Because he had a heart condition, Wolfe made the decision to drive his pick-up truck to the assigned hunting area. While driving to the hunting station, Wolfe spotted what he thought was a deer.

With the engine still running, Wolfe got out of his truck and stepped about three feet away from the vehicle. He then shot at the flash of white that he believed was a deer. Unfortunately, the deer turned out to be Herbison. As a result of being shot Herbison suffered a serious injury to his upper thigh.

Herbison sued Wolfe for damages and was awarded $832,272.85. Herbison then went after Wolfe’s insurance company to recover the damage award. He argued that the insurance company should pay the damages since his loss arose from the ownership or directly or indirectly from the use or operation of Wolfe’s vehicle.

Ontario Court of Appeal Decision
The Court of Appeal found that Wolfe’s insurance had to pay out to Herbison. The Court concluded that Wolfe’s vehicle had been put to a known use, i.e. to transport people. They also found that the connection between Wolfe’s truck, and Herbison’s injuries was sufficient to attract liability. Underlying this reasoning was the court’s finding that the legislature has sought to provide injured persons with extensive vehicle liability compensation.

The Vytlingam Case
The Facts
Vytlingam, his sister and his mother were driving along the interstate in North Carolina when their vehicle was struck by a boulder thrown from an overpass by Farmer. Vytlingam suffered very serious injuries and he received no-fault benefits from his insurer. However, his insurer refused to pay benefits under the inadequately insured motorist coverage, i.e. the amount the uninsured Farmer ought to pay by way of civil damages.

Ontario Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal concluded that since Farmer’s car had been used to transport the rock to the scene of the crime and then to escape, the insurance company was liable to pay Vytlingam’s claim.

The Supreme Court of Canada
Although the facts in these two cases are quite different, the issue raised was the same: Was the act that caused the victim’s injuries sufficiently connected to the wrongdoer’s use and operation of his vehicle, such that the latter’s auto insurance should pay benefits?

In both cases the Supreme Court ruled that there was not a sufficient connection between the vehicles’ use and the injuries.

With respect to the Herbison case, the Court concluded that when Wolfe stepped away from his truck and negligently shot at a target he could not see and which turned out to be his friend, the friend’s injuries did not arise “directly or indirectly from the use or operation” of the insured truck.

In Vytlingam’s case, although Farmer used his vehicle to transport the boulder to the overpass, the Court found that Vytlingam’s injuries were caused by the rock being thrown not by it being transported in Farmer’s vehicle.

In reaching the conclusion it did, the Supreme Court considered two questions.

1. Was the motor vehicle in question being used for its usual purpose?

2. Was there an unbroken chain of causation linking the injuries to the use and operation of the motor vehicle?

Although Wolfe and Farmer had indeed been using their vehicles for the usual transportation purpose, that usual purpose was interrupted. It was those interruptions, the shooting and the rock throwing, that caused the injuries, not the use of the motor vehicles.

The Supreme Court indicated that the Court of Appeal, in both instances, had failed to give sufficient weight to those separate, distinct and intervening acts.

Both of these decisions demonstrate that when determining whether insurance coverage arises, the tragedy of the circumstances must be set aside. Instead one must look to the use the relevant motor vehicle was put to and whether it was that use that led to the damages.