SCC Rules Tree Falling on Car was MVA

June 25, 2012

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that a person was involved in a “motor vehicle accident” when a tree fell on his parked car and killed him.

In City of Westmount v. Richard Rossy et al., a tree collapsed on an automobile and killed Gabriel Anthony Rossy, who was in the automobile. The respondents, his parents and three brothers, then brought an action in extracontractual liability against the applicant City of Westmount. They alleged that the City had failed to maintain the tree, which it owned, and that it was liable on that basis.  At the preliminary stage, the City moved to dismiss the action on the ground that the damage had been caused by an automobile and that compensation was therefore governed by Quebec’s Automobile Insurance Act. The respondent Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec was impleaded.

The Superior Court allowed the City’s motion and dismissed the Rossy family’s action. The Court concluded that, since the Automobile Insurance Act should be given a large and liberal interpretation based on its social and compensatory nature, the accident was covered by the Act because it had resulted in “damage caused by an automobile” within the meaning of s. 1 of the Act.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal set aside the decision. It noted that, on the face of the pleadings, it was established that the tree’s collapse was the sole cause of death and that there was nothing to connect the death with the fact that Mr. Rossy had been in an automobile. According to the Court, the automobile “was merely where Mr. Rossy was sitting when the tree collapsed”. In short, the automobile “was not a factor in the accident or the damage resulting therefrom”, which meant that the government compensation scheme did not apply in the circumstances.

The City’s appeal to the SCC was allowed (unanimously). The Court held that an accident arising out of the use of a vehicle as a means of transportation will fall within the definition of “accident” in the Automobile Insurance Act and will therefore be “caused by an automobile” within the meaning of the Act. Any civil action in connection with the damage caused by that accident will be barred and victims will have to file a claim with the SAAQ. The vehicle’s role in the accident need not be an active one. The mere use or operation of the vehicle, as a vehicle, will be sufficient for the Act to apply. It is in line with the jurisprudence and the literature, and it gives effect to the objective of the legislative scheme.

This decision could have an impact on similar MVA tort cases in Ontario (with or without trees).

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