Stalled vehicle on a highway with no lights on creates hazard, driver liable
In the recent case of Godbout v. Notter, 2018 BCSC 1043, the court found the driver of a stalled vehicle on a highway with no lights on was negligent. The injured plaintiff was the operator of a long-haul tractor trailer. He brought an action for damages because of a horrific car accident involving a salled vehicle on a highway with no lights on. The accident occurred on the westbound lanes of Highway 1, east of Chilliwack, BC on April 26, 2013. The accident involved the plaintiff’s tractor-trailer and much smaller stalled vehicle, a black Kia (the “Kia”). The Kia was being operated by the defendant, Cole Kenneth Notter (“Mr. Notter”).
Mr. Gobout claimed injuries suffered in the accident including an injury to his left arm and shoulder, neck and back. He also experienced headaches. Most significantly, the plaintiff claimed to have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), vertigo, decreased sex drive and vision problems arising as a result of his injuries.
Prior to the accident, Mr. Notter had lost control of his Kia and struck the center cable barrier situated between the eastbound and westbound lanes of Highway 1. The Kia was projected back onto Highway 1 blocking part of the left hand lane. Mr. Notter left the Kia on the road. It was dark outside. There were no street lights in the area. The Kia was black in colour. The Kia did not have any lights on. Mr. Notter did not make any efforts to warn oncoming traffic of the hazard he had created with the stalled vehicle.
The plaintiff was travelling westbound on Highway 1. The plaintiff described seeing an automobile stopped ahead of him on the right shoulder with its lights on and the driver’s door open with someone standing by the driver’s door. The vehicle on the right shoulder was positioned such that it protruded over the fog line. Mr. Godbout made a lane change into the left lane to stay away from a vehicle on the shoulder having checked for traffic in his mirrors. He slowed his rig by approximately 5-6 km/h by shifting down to get around the automobile and into the left or fast lane on the freeway. There was no highway lighting in the area.
After travelling in the left lane for two to three seconds passing the parked automobile and looking into his right mirror before going back into the right lane, Mr. Godbout suddenly “hit something”. It was, in fact, the Kia, a stalled vehicle on a highway with no lights on. Mr. Godbout had not seen anything in front of him prior to impact. After the impact, Mr. Godbout “gripped the wheel”. His rig was not swaying and he geared down to decelerate. Within a few seconds his rig was on its side on the grass median. Dirt was hitting the windshield, and that he continued to grip the wheel with his left hand and tried to hold his step-son, a passenger in the rig, in his seat with his right arm. The rig had flipped onto its side and came to a stop after riding over dirt and impacting the median cable system. He “didn’t know what had happened”, then tried to get his step-son out of the cab which required assistance from others who had rushed to the scene of the accident. It was after getting out of the cab of his tractor that he learned his rig had impacted a black automobile–the Kia.
Mr. Godbout testified he did not see anyone waving at him prior to the accident; he had no recollection of seeing hazard lights flashing on the Kia; that he was paying attention to the road and checking his mirrors every 10 seconds “or so”; that he did not recall any other vehicles being in front of him prior to the accident; and that he had worked, ie. been driving, for 12.5 hours on the day in question. Mr. Godbout stated that at the time of the accident he did not have his high beam headlights engaged due to traffic on the highway.
Were the circumstances facing Mr. Godbout such that it was more likely than not that he could have braked and maneuvered around the Kia? Mr. Godbout was reasonably able to have his highway rig weighing 102,000 pounds and travelling at 100 km/h, maneuver and/or stop so as to avoid the collision.
Mr. Notter testified that his unfamiliarity with the operation of the Kia led him to get too close to the grass median which resulted in his vehicle hitting the centre cable barrier and projecting back onto the highway. He testified he was unable to turn the Kia “back on” after it had come to rest on the highway.
The Court found the defendant, Mr. Notter, was negligent in causing the stalled vehicle accident in which his Kia was allowed to travel onto the grass median and end up in the left or fast westbound lane on the highway. This negligence was compounded by leaving the Kia sitting across a busy lane of traffic with no lights engaged so as to provide a warning to oncoming traffic.
Mr. Godbout could not have anticipated that he would encounter, in the dark, a stalled vehicle sitting across the fast lane on a major freeway, especially since his attention had been diverted to the vehicle on the right shoulder (which he rightfully moved away from) before hitting the Kia. Mr. Godbout’s driving was what would be expected of a careful driver of a large tractor-trailer unit which had little or no opportunity to swerve to avoid the hazard.
The Court found that Mr. Notter created a hazard when he lost control of the Kia which resulted in the Kia blocking part of the fast lane while it was dark. He failed to leave lights on or take other steps which may have warned oncoming traffic. The court concluded that Mr. Notter was totally responsible for the accident and that Mr. Godbout was not contributorily negligent. In the circumstances facing him, it was unlikely that there was enough time to be able to take action to avoid the accident by braking and/or swerving around the Kia.
The trial judge subsequently awarded Mr. Godbout $157,500 in non-pecuniary damages, $100,000 in past wage loss, $275,000 in future lost earnings, $25,000 in future care costs, $15,000 in loss of housekeeping capacity, $10,699.36 in special damages, for a total of $583,199.36.
The lesson of this case is that a stalled vehicle left on a highway with no lights on, whether headlights or four-way-flashers, creates a hazard that can cause injury and leave the driver negligent and liable for damages.