Court of Appeal Determines Whether City is Negligent in Collision at Intersection
The proper maintenance and care of roads is an important part of keeping drivers safe. While most people may think of pot holes and other physical damage to roads when discussing road maintenance, the proper use of paint on the road to instruct and guide drivers is also important. The City of Hamilton, Ontario was recently involved in a decision where the Ontario Court of Appeal was asked to determine whether the city was responsible for an automobile accident that occurred at an intersection with a faded stop sign line.
The plaintiff in the case (“the plaintiff”) was rendered a quadriplegic following an accident that occurred in a rural area of Hamilton on April 29. 2006. The accident happened when a car accelerated away from a stop sign, t-boning the minivan in which the plaintiff was a passenger. The minivan rolled over and struck a pole after being hit. There were no stop signs on the road the minivan was driving on, with the intersection being a two-way stop.
The stop line, which was faded, having been painted in 2004, was between 1.9 and 2.9 meters from the entrance to the intersection, with the stop sign being another 8.4-9.4 meters behind the line, placing it 10.3-12.3 meters away from the intersection.
At trial, the driver of the car (“the driver”) testified that he stopped at the stop line, but could not recall where it was located. In other statements, he said he had stopped at the stop sign before accelerating into the intersection. He had no explanation as to why he did not see the vehicle. While counsel conceded that the driver entered the intersection negligently, the trial judge also found the City of Hamilton (“the city”) breached its duty to keep the roadway in a reasonable state of repair by dialing to repaint a faded stop sign, making it ineffective in guiding passengers to stop at the correct location. The trial judge accepted that he would have been able to see 270 meters south had he been stopped at the sign.
The city appealed the trial judge’s finding of negligence.
A municipality’s duty of repair and the ordinary reasonable driver standard
A municipality’s duty to keep highways “in a state of repair that is reasonable in the circumstances, including the character and location of the highway” is found in Section 44 of the Municipal Act, S.O. 2001 c. 25. This was addressed by the Ontario Court of Appeal in a 201 decision where the court found a municipality is “required to prevent or remedy conditions on its roads that create an unreasonable risk of harm for ordinary drivers exercising reasonable care. Ordinary reasonable drivers are not perfect; they make mistakes. However, a municipality’s duty does not extend to remedying conditions that pose a risk of harm only because of negligent driving.”
The question, then, was whether the city’s failure to maintain the stop line created an unreasonable risk of harm for drivers exercising reasonable care. To answer this question, the court turned to the Highway Traffic Act, which states that drivers approaching a stop sign at an intersection are required to stop their vehicles “immediately before entering the intersection.” And that a driver approaching a stop sign at an intersection ““shall yield the right of way to traffic in the intersection or approaching the intersection on another highway so closely that to proceed would constitute an immediate hazard.”
The trial judge’s decision
The trial judge found that while a reasonable driver would be aware of their duty to stop, they wouldn’t know how to properly judge where to stop. Writing “Put simply, a person stopped eight metres back would be in the safe green zone but a person stopped 8.5 metres back would be in the dangerous red zone. How would an ordinary driver using reasonable care know how to make this judgment?” The trial judge added, “Without a stop line, drivers had to exercise their judgment as to where to stop safely. An ordinary reasonable driver stopping eight metres back from the intersection was in the green zone of safety and could proceed into the intersection safely; the same ordinary reasonable driver stopping 8.5 metres back from the intersection was in the red zone of dangerousness and could not proceed into the intersection safely.”
As a result, the trial judge found the city to be negligent in failing to paint and maintain the stop line.
It was they city’s argument that the trial judge erred in applying the ordinary reasonable driver standard. While the trial judge acknowledge a reasonable driver would be aware of the duty to stop at the entrance to the intersection, he did not extent that line of reasoning to conclude that a reasonable driver would actually stop. The court found this argument to be unnecessary, stating instead that
“the question in this case was not whether an ordinary reasonable driver could be expected to know the exact length of the safe stopping distance in relation to northbound traffic (i.e., that if they stopped eight meters back from the intersection they would have adequate sightlines for northbound, traffic but if they stopped 8.5 meters back they would not). Rather, the question was whether, in the absence of a stop line, the intersection posed an unreasonable risk of harm for ordinary drivers exercising reasonable care who sometimes make mistakes.”
Drivers stopped at the stop sign would have their view of the road blocked by a house, which would not obstruct their view if they were stopped at the stop line, or the entrance to the intersection. The court found “Ordinary reasonable drivers would not stop their cars in a location where their view of oncoming traffic from one direction would be completely obscured and then proceed into the intersection without stopping again. They would know to come closer to the intersection before stopping initially or before stopping again, in order to have a clear view of traffic from both directions.”
The court allowed the city’s appeal, reversing the trial judge’s finding that the city failed to keep the roadway in a reasonable state of repair.
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