The majority of motor vehicle accidents are the result of careless actions, and for many car accidents, one or more of the drivers is guilty of a traffic violation connected to the circumstances of the accident. In some cases, the ‘at fault’ driver may have been impaired or driving recklessly and subsequently found guilty of a criminal violation such as dangerous driving. Therefore, it is not uncommon in civil lawsuits, for the defendant or multiple defendants to have already been convicted of a traffic or criminal offence before the civil trial commences. In such cases, both accident victims and defendants may argue whether a previous conviction should pre-determine liability in a civil suit for damages.
The issue in question is whether our civil courts can and do rely on decisions made by criminal courts. One consideration for this issue is that the opposing parties are not the same in civil cases as in the criminal proceeding pertaining to a given accident. Another, is that criminal and civil proceedings have somewhat different standards of proof. A civil court makes a judgement based on proof to a balance of probabilities, whereas a criminal court requires proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Also, the disclosure of evidence and review of decisions differ in criminal and civil legal proceedings. On the other hand, our system of justice acknowledges that the re-litigation of evidence that was already decided by another court constitutes a waste of resources and also risks variable results which, in both instances, offends the administration of justice.
Increasingly, Canadian courts have recognized that the expert decision of criminal courts should be an important evidentiary factor in civil proceedings. Accordingly, previous criminal convictions can be admitted as evidence and are typically considered unambiguous proof of the offending person’s actions. However, the weight given to a criminal conviction is subject to challenge in civil cases.
Caci v. MacArthur is a civil trial that addressed the issue of whether a defendant should be allowed to re-litigate their criminal conviction in their civil trial. This trial arose when a passenger sued both his own driver (MacArthur) and another driver (Dorkin) for injuries resulting from a 2001 motor vehicle accident that occurred in Brampton, Ontario. Mr. MacArthur had already been convicted of “dangerous driving causing bodily harm” in a criminal trial, as contrary to the Criminal Code, section 249(3). A key remaining issue in the civil trial was the various liability of the two drivers, each of whom had filed a crossclaim against the other.
In Caci, Justice Brown relied on the decisions in Toronto (City) v. C.U.P.E., Local 79 and K.F., Jordan F. v. White (2001), in his decision that proof of Mr. MacArthur’s criminal conviction is, for all practical purposes, conclusive proof on the issue of his negligence, based on the application of the doctrine of abuse of process. The jury found Mr. MacArthur to be 100 negligent in causing the plaintiff’s injuries and attributed no negligence to Ms. Dorkin.
On appeal, in Caci v. Dorkin, 2008, the Court of Appeal for Ontario upheld the trial judge’s decision, finding that the trial judge did not err in relying on the verdict in the criminal case. Further, it was stated that, to permit either the defendant, “M or the insurer to relitigate the issue of negligence and the findings essential to that verdict would undermine the integrity of the adjudicative process”.
Even more frequent than criminal convictions, drivers involved in car accidents have often committed, and are charged with a traffic violation under the Ontario Highway Traffic Act. In many cases, such individuals do not seek representation by counsel; they simply admit guilt and pay the fine, often unaware that their admittance of guilt may be presented as evidence of their negligent actions in a civil trial. However, the fact that the admission of guilt in a traffic violation is done without benefit of counsel can contribute to the weight carrying by the conviction with respect to evidence in a civil trial.
A recent case, Singh v. Tattrie, arose after two pedestrians were injured when they were struck by the defendant, Ms. Tattrie’s vehicle. In the moments prior to the accident, Ms. Tattrie made a left turn at an intersection, directly in front of another vehicle driven by Ms. Inniss and owned by Mr. Dwyer. Ms. Tattrie testified that she proceeded to turn because she had reason to believe the Inniss vehicle was coming to a stop or slowing to allow her to turn; however, that did not happen and consequently, the Inniss vehicle collided with the rear quarter panel of Ms. Tattrie’s car. Ms. Tattrie was subsequently charged and plead guilty for failing to ensure her left-hand turn could be made safely under the Act. In Singh, the co-defendants, Ms. Inniss and Mr. Dwyer, sought summary judgement to dismiss the actions and cross-claims against them, on the basis that Ms. Tattrie bears full liability for the accident and arguing that there is a significant onus on driver who is turning left into the path of oncoming traffic to ensure that the turn can be made safely. On the other hand, Ms. Tattrie took the position that she believed the oncoming vehicle was braking and a jury may find some liability on the part of Ms. Inniss. The judge in this case noted that Ms. Tattrie’s guilty plea on the traffic violation was made without consulting with counsel and he dismissed the co-defendant’s motion for summary judgement, noting that on the facts, he could not conclude that Ms. Inniss did not bear any responsibility for the accident and further, the co-defendants “have not met their legal burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine issue that requires a trial”.
Unlike the previous case, in Bhattacherjee v. Marianayagam et al, the Ontario Superior Court found that the defendant driver’s guilty plea under the Highway Traffic Act, which was made in consultation with the defendant’s lawyer, was an admission to all legal aspects of the offence. The case arose after the main defendant, Enid Marianayagam, drove into a Hamilton intersection on a red light while travelling west-bound and T-boned another vehicle entering northbound on a green light. In the trial, the driver and owner of the other vehicle, Michael Grossi and Nisan Canada, moved for a summary judgement to dismiss the action against them. For her actions in connection with the accident, Ms. Marianayagam was charged with careless driving under the Act, but on the advice of her lawyer, pled guilty to the lesser charge of disobeying a traffic signal - red. The injured plaintiff in this case was a passenger in the Marianayagam vehicle. The main issue to be decided was whether there was enough evidence to ascertain whether the light was red, amber or green when Ms. Marianayagam drove into the intersection and whether, as a result, one could draw a reasonable inference as to liability.
In Bhattacherjee, the defendant alleged that her lawyer prevented her from contesting the charge; however, she did not appeal her conviction on the grounds of incompetent counsel or take any other steps to have her case reviewed, and the judge did not accept her argument. On the evidence presented, including witness accounts (among them, the passengers in the two vehicles) as well as the defendant’s guilty conviction, the judge concluded that there were no reasonable grounds to re-litigate the case (for example, on the basis of new evidence or fairness). And when these grounds do not apply, the court held that a criminal conviction or in this case, a conviction under the Highway Traffic Act, is generally decisive on the relevant facts in a related civil proceeding, particularly when there was a guilty plea which essentially constitutes an admission on the evidence and legal foundations of the charge. Accordingly, Ms. Marianayagam was found wholly at fault for the accident and thus, Mr. Grossi and Nisan were successful in having the action against them dismissed.
A criminal or ‘quasi-criminal’ conviction does not necessarily provide conclusive evidence that a defendant was negligent in a civil trial, as there may be circumstances or evidence brought forward to shed a different light on the facts of a case, such as contributing negligent actions by another party. However, without a compelling reason for re-litigating whether a defendant who pled guilty in a previous action is at fault in causing an accident, the court in a civil proceeding will generally accept the criminal or traffic conviction as evidence of liability. What is generally accepted is that, even in the case of a traffic violation, when someone pays their fine and agrees to the charge, they are making a prima facie acknowledgment of their guilt based on the facts of the case. For a plaintiff in a civil action, the ramifications of a presumption of guilt on the part of a defendant driver so convicted, is a generally high rate of success in proving a defendant’s liability in causing their injuries.