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Automobile defects and the duty of care

If your vehicle causes damage as a result of a mechanical failure, who is to blame? As a vehicle owner, what is your duty to detect defects?

In the November 19, 2015 decision of Little v. Einarsen 2015 BCSC 2127, (http://www.courts.gov.bc.ca/jdb-txt/sc/15/21/2015BCSC2127.htm)  Mr. Justice Smith was faced with an unusual motor vehicle accident in which the plaintiff was hit by an unoccupied car. The defendant vehicle had been parked in a sloped lot when the emergency brake failed, causing the vehicle to roll backward, hitting the plaintiff and another vehicle before coming to a rest. Mr. Justice Smith found that the plaintiff failed to prove that the injuries he suffered were caused by anything the defendant did or did not do as she had fulfilled her duty to be satisfied that all components were in good working order by having it inspected two months before the accident:

 [20]        Whether Ms. Einarsen can be held at fault for that failure depends on whether it was foreseeable—whether she knew or ought to have known about a defect or inadequacy that might cause the emergency brake to fail.

[21]        An owner of a vehicle owes a duty not to use it or permit it to be used if he or she knows or ought to have known that it is defective in any way that might cause an accident. The court will find that an owner ought to have known about a defect that would have been detected by the exercise of ordinary care, caution, and skill: Dyk v. Protec Automotive Repairs Ltd., 1998 CarswellBC 3834 (S.C.) at para. 81.

[22]        In Newell v. Towns, 2008 NSSC 174, the court said at para. 175:

[175]    ….However, an owner is not liable for all consequences that may flow from an accident that happens as a result of a mechanical defect in a vehicle. Liability only occurs for those defects that went uncorrected, when either the owner knew, or should have known by the exercise of reasonable care, of their existence.

[23]        There is no evidence that the emergency brake had failed in the past or of any defect of which Ms. Einarsen knew or should have known. Arguably, the age of the car heightened Ms. Einarsen’s duty to be satisfied that all components were in good working order. I find that, by having the vehicle inspected only two months before the accident, she had done what was reasonable to comply with that duty.

[24]        There is no evidence that the mechanics who performed that inspection failed to notice or repair a problem with the emergency brake or that Ms. Einarsen had any reason to believe they had. There is no evidence of any problem with the emergency brake that became apparent between the dates of the inspection and the accident.

[25]        In short, while Mr. Little clearly suffered injuries, he has failed to meet the burden of proving that they were caused by anything Ms. Einarsen did or failed to do or by any mechanical defect she could have detected with ordinary care, caution, or skill. In view of that failure to prove liability and a resulting entitlement to damages, it is not necessary to comment upon or attempt to resolve the many issues about the nature and extent of Mr. Little’s injuries.

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