The Court of Appeal recently provided guidance as to the standard of care applicable for drivers in emergency situations in Isaac Estate v Matuszynska. The deceased plaintiff, Isaac, met with the driver of the subject vehicle, Lafontaine, to arrange a drug deal. Lafontaine drove Isaac and two female passengers to a more appropriate venue: the parking lot behind a bar.

An argument arose. Isaac exited the vehicle and smashed the driver’s side window. Isaac reached inside the vehicle to grab the steering wheel and to seize the drugs. In a panic, Lafontaine started to drive away while swerving the vehicle and attempted to kick Isaac to remove his hold, As a result, Isaac eventually  fell, hit his head on the curb and died. The police concluded that Isaac’s death was accidental and did not charge Lafontaine in relation to the accident.

State Farm, the statutory third party, and the defendant owner of the vehicle, who had not been present during the incident, brought a motion for summary judgment to dismiss the action. Justice Rady presided at the motion. She applied the doctrine of emergency to find that Lafontaine met the standard of care, which was not a standard of perfection, and that Isaac was the author of his own misfortune. There was no triable issue for trial. She also awarded costs against the FLA claimants.

At the Court of Appeal, the three-judge panel came to a rare 2-1 decision. Justice Huscroft (showing the same no-nonsense approach I was privy to as a student in his administrative law class), writing for the court, upheld the decision with a spirited dissent by Justice Pepall.

On appeal, the plaintiffs’ argued that Justice Rady erred in her application of the doctrine of emergency on the grounds that Lafontaine was alert to the possibility of danger and contributed to the emergency by consuming crack cocaine before driving to purchase more drugs.

The majority on the Court did not accept these submissions. In order to establish the doctrine of emergency, the harm must be imminent and unforeseen. Although Lafontaine had reason to believe that something might happen in the course of a drug deal occurring in the middle of the night in an empty parking lot, this does not establish that he foresaw what actually occurred. Moreover, the plaintiffs’ submissions were essentially requesting that the Court reweigh the evidence and reach a different conclusion, which is not the role of an appeal court. The Court did not find any basis to interfere with Justice Rady’s findings based on the record that was before her. 

In dissent, Justice Pepall disagreed. She took issue with the minimal factual findings in the face of unresolved material inconsistencies in the evidence. The evidence was limited at the hearing to several affidavits by State Farm’s counsel, the documented statements by Lafontaine to the police, and the in-person testimony of one of the female passengers. Lafontaine had long since disappeared. Despite these shortcomings, there was no indication that additional evidence was available for a trial.

Justice Pepall felt that greater caution should have been used in the face of the evidentiary record which involved a largely unexplored area of the law that would benefit from the full record that a trial provides. She took issue with Justice Rady’s analysis of the evidence in the context of the relevant legal doctrine. However, despite her concerns, there was no reason to believe that a trial would allow the court to have a fuller evidentiary record. Justice Pepall’s approach demonstrates the wide-spread hesitancy of the court in allowing summary judgment motions in these kinds of cases in the last few years.

The majority of the court, on the other hand, exhibited the promise of Hryniak. Perhaps where additional evidence was available, the result would have been different. In a post-Hyrniak world, the court must balance the principles of proportionality and efficiency with fairness, largely relating to evidence. This decision is no exception.

Maia Abbas is the author of this blog and an associate at the firm. If you have a question about this decision or a similar file, please contact Maia