The Ontario Court of Appeal recently mandated a small adjustment to the standard jury charge in rear-end motor vehicle accidents. The court also strongly confirmed that when one car runs into another from behind, the driver of the rear car has the onus to satisfy the court that the collision did not occur as a result of his negligence.
In April, 2012 a jury found Stephen Corbett not liable for driving his cement mixing truck into the back of a pick-up truck driven by the plaintiff Andrea Iannarella on a snowy February evening on Highway 427. The jury decided that Mr. Corbett had not been driving negligently. Mr. Corbett’s evidence was that:
[H]e was accelerating and was about to shift into second gear when a snowsquall, which he described as a “whiteout”, suddenly reduced his visibility to zero. He testified that at that point he had only two options: to brake or to keep going. After a delay of “one-and-a-half seconds”, he “slammed” on his brakes “fairly hard.” Despite traveling at an initial speed of at most eight kilometers per hour, his vehicle did not stop before sliding into the rear of Mr. Iannarella’s pick-up truck.
The Court of Appeal disagreed with the jury’s finding and ruled that Mr. Corbett was liable, writing that “Mr. Corbett was plainly going too fast for the weather and road conditions and could have avoided the [collision] by exercising sufficient care.”
The Court of Appeal provided a summary of the law on liability in rear-end motor vehicle accidents. Since as early as 1932, the common law has been that “[g]enerally speaking, when one car runs into another from behind, the fault is in the driving of the rear car, and the driver of the rear car must satisfy the court that the collision did not occur as a result of his negligence.” The long-standing common law principle does not automatically lead to liability for the following driver, but shifts the onus to the following driver to show they were not negligent. The defendant has this burden even when they plead an emergency situation, as Mr. Corbett alleged, or an “inevitable accident” defence.
The Court of Appeal found that the trial judge’s instruction to the jury on the onus of proof in rear-end motor vehicle accidents was incorrect. The Court of Appeal held:
There was, in my view, no good reason for the trial judge to have departed from the principle expressed in the standard jury charge, which is consistent with the established jurisprudence. To repeat, the standard charge provides:
Members of the jury, generally speaking, when one car runs into another from behind, in the absence of any excuse for such a collision, the driver of the rear car must satisfy you that the collision did not occur as a result of his negligence.
I would make one minor change to the wording of the standard charge: the phrase “in the absence of any excuse for such a collision” should be deleted. In my view, the driver of the rear vehicle might well have an excuse for the collision that satisfies the jury that the accident did not occur as a result of his or her negligence. Nonetheless, the duty to provide that explanation rests on the defendant, not the plaintiff. To put it differently, once the plaintiff has proven that a rear-end collision occurred, the evidentiary burden shifts from the plaintiff to the defendant, who must then show that he or she was not negligent. This analysis would apply even where an emergency situation is alleged, as in this case.
The Court of Appeal overturned the jury’s decision and substituted its own finding of liability. A new trial was ordered on the issue of damages (see our related article about car accident injuries).
 Ibid, at para 4.
 Ibid, at para 24.
 Beaumont v Ruddy, 1932 CanLII 147 (ON CA),  OR 441 (CA), at p 442, as quoted in Iannarella v Corbett, supra, at para 10.
 Iannarella v Corbett, supra, at para 13.
 Ibid, at paras 14 & 19.
 Ibid, at para 20.