A personal injury claim is a legal action brought by an injured party seeking compensation for the damages they have suffered. For example, if you have been injured in a car accident, you might sue the other driver under the tort of negligence. 

In most instances, police will attend the scene of the crash. At a minimum, they will write up a report documenting the details of the accident. They may even charge one or more drivers involved in the accident with a traffic offence, such as failure to complete a stop at a stop sign. 

While the actions of the police and the legal regime under which they operate have no direct connection to civil cases amongst private citizens, the charges brought by police may still be used and useful in meeting the burden of proof in your personal injury claim.

The Burden of Proof in a Personal Injury Claim

If you launch a personal injury claim against another driver in a car accident, you are alleging that they are liable (i.e. at fault) for the accident and caused the damages you have suffered. 

As the plaintiff, you have the burden of proof — you must produce evidence that proves your claim on a “balance of probabilities.” This means you must convince the court that your version of events is more likely true than the alternative (i.e. the defendant’s version).

While traffic and criminal charges are prosecuted under an entirely separate legal regime and have legal elements and different standards of proof, they can still help you meet your burden of proof in a civil claim.

Traffic Offences As Proof Of Negligence

If the other driver involved in a car accident is convicted of a traffic offence relating to the sequence of events leading up to a car accident, this may prove crucial evidence in a personal injury claim. 

In Madge v. Meyer, the court accepted a traffic offence as proof of negligence in a personal injury claim. Traffic offence is particularly important as the plaintiff’s vehicle hit the defendant’s vehicle. 

The plaintiff was driving along a highway and ran into the defendant’s vehicle when it pulled out from a side road. RCMP attended the scene of the accident. After assessing the situation, they charged the defendant with failing to stop at a stop sign under the Highway Traffic Act (now repealed but in force at the time of the accident). The defendant paid the resulting fine, which the court interpreted as “thereby admitting guilt for the offence charged.” 

On the strength of this admission of guilt, the court made a finding of fact that the defendant failed to stop at the stop sign. The defendant was found negligent in failing to see the plaintiff’s vehicle in time to avoid the collision and applying his brakes at the stop sign properly.  

Notably, the court referenced and accepted the details in the associated police report, including measurements and photographs taken at the accident scene. This demonstrates that courts recognize and respect police expertise in investigating traffic accidents. They are likely to afford considerable weight and credibility to any evidence related to police investigations.

Conviction of Criminal Offences and the Inference of Negligence

Under the Alberta Evidence Act, conviction of a criminal offence can be admissible as evidence in a civil trial. 

Personal injury claims in other jurisdictions have sometimes relied on convictions for impaired driving. In Scott v. Pettigrew, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia acknowledged that the Supreme Court of Canada had previously “said the fact of intoxication and the accident raise an inference of negligence.” Interestingly, the court appeared not to rely on “the benefit of that inference” in the case before it. Instead, negligence was found because the driver lost control of his vehicle despite the excellent road conditions. 

The court concluded that the accident would not have occurred if the defendant had been driving “safe and prudently.” In its reasons, the court explicitly noted that the defendant had entered a guilty plea to the charge of operating a motor vehicle while impaired, “thereby causing bodily harm” to the plaintiff. It, therefore, seems clear that the conviction for impaired driving was compelling evidence in establishing negligence and causation.

Does Criminal Acquittal Result Refute a Civil Claim?

The abovementioned cases hinged on defendants convicted of offences — sometimes just because they paid a traffic fine. What happens if the defendant is charged with a criminal offence but acquitted? Will this defeat or undermine a personal injury claim in negligence?

In McCluskey v. Desilets, the defendant to a personal injury claim resulting from a car accident argued that his acquittal of criminal charges of dangerous driving provided a full answer to the plaintiff’s civil claim of negligence. The court rejected this argument and allowed the personal injury claim to proceed.

To understand this ruling, we must remember that criminal offences and civil claims exist in separate legal regimes with different standards of proof. The civil standard of a balance of probabilities is a much lower bar than the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The fact that the criminal standard of proof was not met doesn’t mean that the plaintiff in a civil case cannot still meet the lower standard of proving their negligence claim on a balance of probabilities.

The bottom line is that convictions for related traffic or criminal offences can be compelling and helpful evidence in a personal injury claim. The courts are also likely to give significant weight and credibility to evidence of police investigations and findings. However, the fact that a civil defendant has been acquitted of criminal or traffic offences related to the accident is not fatal to a personal injury claim.

Our Calgary Personal Injury Lawyers Are Here To Help If You Have Been Injured In A Motor Vehicle Accident

If you or someone you know has been involved in a car accident, contact the knowledgeable personal injury lawyers at Cuming Gillespie LLP to learn about your legal rights and what kinds of evidence will ensure the best possible outcome for your personal injury claim. To schedule an initial consultation with a team member, contact us online or by phone at 403-571-0555.