What is the role of road rage when assessing motor vehicle liability? The British Columbia Supreme Court recently gave its opinion on the significance of intimidation in motor vehicle accidents involving cyclists. In Davies v. Elston, 2014 BCSC 2435, the 77-year old plaintiff was thrown from his bike after a heated confrontation with the Defendant, in which Elston used his one-ton Ford F350 pickup to chase down and heckle the senior as he was biking with his son in Richmond.
The Plaintiff was cycling along one of his regular routes with his son in a designated bike lane, when his son made a comment about a parked truck’s mirror extending into the bike lane. The Defendant, who owned the truck, was nearby and heard the comment. He proceeded to get into his truck and followed the two cyclists in order to confront them. When the Defendant caught up to the Plaintiff, he was still riding in the bike lane. The Defendant rolled down his passenger window and began to heckle the Plaintiff. After a brief exchange, during which the Plaintiff was leaning on the vehicle for support, the truck drove away and the Plaintiff unfortunately crashed into the curb, causing serious injuries.
The case revolved around how the accident occurred and so, the court applied the relevant legal test for causation: whether the plaintiff can prove on a balance of probabilities that but for the defendant’s negligent conduct, the plaintiff’s fall from the bicycle and injuries would not have occurred.
The court found that the Defendant’s words were stated aggressively and were meant to intimidate. The context in which these were said further indicated the Defendant’s intention to intimidate. The court stated:
To any person in Jim Davies’ shoes, Mr. Elston’s conduct would have seemed angry, irrational and threatening. In the situation Jim Davies found himself, due to Mr. Elston’s conduct … inches away from serious harm. He was being pursued by an angry man whose large moving vehicle was the equivalent of a weapon that could have been turned on him and his son at any second. Any slip by the driver or the cyclist and Jim Davies could have found himself under the rear tires of the truck.
The court concluded that Elston’s conduct fell below the standard of care of a reasonable and prudent driver when he drove alongside the two cyclists and yelled at them. In short, his behaviour was negligent. His actions of driving so close to the bike lane made it intimidating, threatening and unsafe for the cyclists. In addition, he breached the standard of care when he pulled away quickly, without warning, while the Plaintiff’s hand was resting on the passenger windowsill of the truck.
The court set out the general principles that apply where a driver is found to have intimidated a cyclist with his or her behaviour:
No matter how aggravating a cyclist’s behaviour might be… a driver of a motor vehicle can never be justified in deliberately using a motor vehicle to confront a cyclist who is riding a bike. Confrontation creates a serious risk of harm to the cyclist which is way out of proportion to anything the cyclist might have done. A driver of a motor vehicle is not entitled to impose a penalty of death or serious bodily harm on a cyclist just because the cyclist was rude or broke a traffic rule.
It has to be remembered that motor vehicles have four wheels, automatic brakes, seatbelts, and the driver is nicely encased in a heavy steel cage and that a person on a bicycle is not in a situation which is the least bit comparable, even if going the same speed as a vehicle. A cyclist cannot stop on a dime, is vulnerable to losing balance, and can be seriously injured or killed if he or she makes contact with a motor vehicle or falls at a high speed.
The court then concluded that but for the Defendant’s aggressive and negligent conduct, the Plaintiff would not have fallen from his bike. The Defendant’s negligence was consequently the cause of the accident and resulting injuries.
As a result of this decision, the court has confirmed that regardless of a cyclist’s behaviour, a driver of a motor vehicle who behaves in a way that can be construed as aggressive may be considered to have acted negligently if there is resulting injury. The decision leaves open the door for finding that even where there is absolutely no physical contact between the two, the act of being threatening could be enough to create a causal link with any subsequent accident that may occur.