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Road Rage: A Case for Punitive Damages

Will I be awarded punitive damages in addition to my compensatory damages if I am a victim of road rage?  What if I too lose my temper and participate in aggressive behaviour?

It should be no surprise that if you beat someone on the side of the road with an aluminum bat, even IF they cut you off in traffic, you’re going to pay for it one way or another.  Remarkably, this message didn’t hit home for a Mr. Arguello.  Credited to his actions, a decision was released today from the Supreme Court of British Columbia which discussed whether punitive damages should be awarded in the circumstances of road rage (McCaffery v Arguello, 2017 BCSC 1460).

The fundamental principle governing awards of damages in personal injury actions is restitutio in integrum, meaning, the injured person is to be restored to the position he would have been in had the accident not occurred.  Punitive damages, however, are not compensatory in nature but rather intended to address the purposes of retribution, deterrence, and denunciation.  These damages are exceptionally rare.  They are limited to misconduct which markedly departs from decent behaviour and are reserved for wrongful acts that are so “malicious and outrageous that they are deserving of punishment on their own”: Keays v Honda Canada Inc., 2008 SCC 39 at para 62.

This case involved a couple of mini van drivers who began fighting over who cut off whom at the on-ramp to Second Narrows Bridge in Vancouver.  While driving across the bridge, the two drivers continued to exchange insults and jockeyed back and forth for a position.  Near the top, Mr. Arguello pulled in front of Mr. McCaffery’s vehicle and suddenly stopped in the middle of the fast lane.  A minor collision resulted from this maneuver but that was peanuts compared to what was about to transpire.  A scuffle ensued on the side of the road between Mr. McCaffery and the passenger of the other vehicle.  Subsequently, Mr. Arguello came in swinging with an aluminum baseball bat, repeatedly striking Mr. McCaffery, causing him serious injuries to his head, chest, and left arm.

Mr. Arguello was criminally prosecuted and convicted.  Notwithstanding this conviction, the Honourable Madame Justice MacNaughton declared it necessary to award punitive damages to make it clear to the public that Mr. Arguello’s conduct departed so markedly from the ordinary standards of decent behaviour as to be worthy of further punishment.  Go figure.  Lady MacNaughton’s reasons for judgment were as follows:

[125]     Mr. Arguello’s decision to follow Mr. McCaffery’s vehicle for five kilometers up the Upper Levels Highway, cut aggressively in front of it, slam on his brakes and cause a collision, and then to exit his vehicle with a baseball bat with which he repeatedly hit Mr. McCaffery, cannot be countenanced in civil society where hundreds of thousands of drivers use our roads and encounter driving maneuvers which upset or anger them.  Road rage incidents are increasingly common in our busy lives and on our busy roads as drivers’ jockey for position.  They cannot be tolerated.

[126]     I accept that Mr. Arguello expressed regret for the injuries he caused by his behaviour, but at the same time, he asked for consideration for the legal fees he expended to defend himself criminally and the impact of the incident on his family.  As the person determined to be fully responsible for the incident, both criminally and civilly, his submissions indicated to me that he had not entirely understood the community’s condemnation of his behaviour.

[127]     Therefore, in addition to the compensatory damages I have ordered, I award Mr. McCaffery the sum of $30,000 in punitive damages.