Legal Matters with Chris Richard – Police Investigation in Civil Cases

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You have been injured in a car accident. The police conducted an investigation, determined that you caused the accident, and charged you with a criminal offence. You think that because you have been criminally convicted in relation to this accident that you do not have a civil case to recover damages for the injuries that you sustained. This may not be true, however.

Police investigations are not determinative of the result in a civil trial. Regardless of the conclusions drawn by the police following their investigation and whether charges are laid, triers of fact in the civil system must weigh all relevant evidence and can potentially reach very different conclusions than the police.

Chris Richard, the Managing Partner of Lancaster Chown & Welch LLP, a well-known personal injury law firm serving St. Catharines and the Niagara Falls area, sat down with host Lee Sterry of Niagara’s 610 Newstalk Radio and discussed this topic during a recent episode of Legal Matters.

The Two Systems: Criminal/Regulatory and Civil

It could be said that we effectively have two separate and independent legal systems in Ontario. We have the criminal system, which includes the regulatory system for our purposes, and the civil law system. Someone is involved in the criminal and regulatory system when he or she is charged with a criminal offence under the Criminal Code, or a provincial offence under the Highway Traffic Act. The criminal and regulatory system is a state versus citizen system. Someone is involved with the civil system when he or she has a dispute against another individual. The state isn’t involved in civil law other than providing a court system within which to resolve the disputes.

How the Systems Interact

One area in which these two systems interact is that of police investigations of car accidents.

Accident Reconstruction Reports

In almost every accident, a police investigation is conducted in which photographs will be taken of the accident scene, and statements will be obtained from the people involved in the accident and independent witnesses. In cases involving serious injuries or fatalities, the police will prepare an Accident Reconstruction Report, in which the accident is reconstructed using measurements, positioning of the vehicles, and speed calculations to draw conclusions regarding points of impact. Also, Vehicle Inspection Reports will be prepared after mechanical inspections of vehicles are performed. The police perform investigations and prepare these reports solely for the purpose of determining whether a criminal or regulatory charge should follow a collision.

By the time someone contacts a personal injury lawyer, the accident scene has been cleared, the vehicles have been removed, and the witnesses have gone on their way. The raw data accumulated by the police becomes vitally important to the car accident lawyer in preparing a case.

For the purposes of the outcome of a civil case, the conclusions drawn by the police from their evidence aren’t determinative. In a civil case, the trier of fact, whether it be a judge or a jury, has the duty to assess the reliability and the strength and weakness of all the evidence that comes before them.

A personal injury lawyer will often take the raw data collected during a police investigation, and give it to a forensic engineer with a speciality in accident reconstruction to perform an independent evaluation of the evidence and draw their own conclusions. Engineers tend to be more qualified than a police accident reconstructionist in the sense that they have completed more years of schooling and have developed a speciality in the area. If the conclusion drawn by an engineer is different from the conclusion drawn by the police regarding how an accident occurred, that is evidence that a trier of fact will assess along with the Accident Reconstruction Report and other raw evidence.

Chris shared that several years ago, he had a case involving a head-on collision. The accident occurred in the middle of the road. The police had determined, based on an analysis of skid marks on the road, that his client had crossed the centre line first. Chris retained an engineer who, after an independent investigation, determined that the police weren’t correct because the skid marks that they had identified as belonging to his client got narrower further down the road, which was not typical.

Accident Reconstruction Reports, then, are simply one source of information, among many, for the purposes of determining fault and liability in a civil case.

Effect of Criminal Charges in a Civil Case

Another area in which the criminal (and regulatory) and civil systems overlap is in the area of criminal or provincial offence charges.

For the purposes of a civil proceeding, the act of being charged with an offence is irrelevant. A charge or evidence of a charge, under the Criminal Code or Highway Traffic Act, is not admissible in a civil proceeding. A judge and jury will not be made aware of a charge, and neither is permitted to consider it.

A conviction, on the other hand, occurs after someone has been found guilty of an offence, either by pleading guilty or by being found guilty by a judge or jury following a trial. Convictions are admissible under s. 22.1 of the Evidence Act as fact. This section states that a conviction is proof of the fact in the absence of evidence to the contrary, thereby arguably creating a rebuttable presumption. For example, if someone is convicted of failing to stop at a red light, and the conviction is the only evidence presented, the triers of fact would find as a fact that the person didn’t stop for the red light. But if, in this scenario, a witness came forward and testified that he or she saw that when that person went through the light that it was green, the weight of the conviction is much less, and a trier of fact will be required to weigh the evidence and come to their own conclusion.

Chris recalls a case in which his client pled guilty to a charge of making an improper left turn. As she was making a turn through traffic, a vehicle travelling in another lane struck the rear side of her vehicle. An engineering analysis revealed that the driver of the vehicle that hit Chris’ client was speeding at the time, and if he hadn’t been speeding the accident would not have happened. The case went to trial, and a jury found that Chris’ client was 25 percent responsible while the driver who hit her was 75 percent responsible for the accident. She was charged, and pled guilty to the offence of making an improper left turn, but was still able to recover compensation through the civil system.

A criminal conviction must also be relevant to the civil action in order for it to be admissible. In other words, the charge must be causally connected to the accident. If for example, a driver who is impaired by alcohol is stopped at a red light and is suddenly rear-ended, the fact that the driver’s blood-alcohol level is significantly over the legal limit is irrelevant in any civil proceeding because it wasn’t one of the factors that caused the accident. Another example is a person being charged with operating an unsafe vehicle. This can arise in the situation where a mechanical investigation conducted after the accident reveals that the person not in fault was driving a vehicle with an unsafe condition. This condition, while legally unsafe, did not have anything to do with the cause of the accident, and is therefore not relevant in a civil proceeding.

The important point to take from this discussion is that the results of a police investigation are not determinative of the result in a civil trial. If someone has been injured in an accident, regardless of the conclusions drawn in an Accident Reconstruction Report and whether charges are laid, it is beneficial to see a personal injury lawyer and receive advice.