Assessment and apportionment of damages in the context of indivisible injury

The application of the legal principle of indivisibility continues to evolve as courts encounter further and more complex fact scenarios involving indivisible injuries.

The case of Lane v. Wahl, 2015 BCSC 1779 provides a useful illustration of how the Court deals with a finding of indivisible injury caused by multiple accidents. In this case, all of the accidents were subject to proceedings before the Court, but with the additional wrinkle that the Plaintiff was at fault for one of the two accidents giving rise to the indivisible injury.

In Lane v. Wahl, the Plaintiff brought an action for damages for injuries suffered in three accidents. The Defendants admitted fault for the first and third accidents, but denied liability for the second accident in which the Plaintiff sustained the most serious injuries.

The Court found that the Plaintiff’s depression was an indivisible injury arising from the cumulative effects of the second and third accidents. The Court concluded that the evidence did not disclose any major depressive episodes resulting from the first accident, but it was quite clear that the Plaintiff was depressed after the second accident.

The Court further found that the Plaintiff was solely responsible for the second accident. This finding had significant implications with respect to damages, including how the damages arising from the major depressive disorder were assessed and apportioned.  As the Defendant to the second accident was not at fault, and the first accident was not a cause of the subject depression, the Court apportioned the damages attributable to the indivisible injury (i.e. the depression) between the Plaintiff and the Defendant in the third accident.

With respect to the appropriate mechanism of apportionment, the Court stated that it is a matter of determining relative fault or blameworthiness of the persons responsible, and not the degree to which the persons caused the subject injuries or damage. Accordingly, the Court apportioned fault with respect to damages arising from the major depressive disorder equally between the Plaintiff and the Defendant in the third accident.

In summary, Lane v. Wahl is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it demonstrates that each injury, and specifically what event gave rise to the injury, must be assessed separately. In this way, the court can determine among the parties how the associated damages should be apportioned in the case of mixed liability.

Second, in some past cases, courts have incorrectly apportioned damages on the basis of the degree to which a party was responsible for the injuries. In other words, if a party caused an accident of a greater severity and likely contributed to the subject damages more than the other causative accident(s), that party was apportioned a greater degree of the joint and several damages. This is not correct according to the Negligence Act, which provides that apportionment is based on the relative fault of the persons responsible for the damage as opposed to the degree to which they are found to be responsible for the injuries. In other words, apportionment should be based on the blameworthiness of the party’s conduct, not on the extent to which that conduct caused the subject damages.

The Court in Lane v. Wahl applies the correct approach and found that neither the Plaintiff, who was at fault for the second accident, nor the defendant at fault for the third accident, could be said to be more at fault for the indivisible injury arising from the second and third accidents. The Court provided that it seemed that in both cases, the parties responsible for the accidents had a momentary lapse of attention that led to the accidents in question. Despite the Plaintiff attempting to pass a vehicle on the right when he knew the vehicle was about to make a right hand turn, the Court could not find that he “knowingly acted recklessly in the second accident”.

It is difficult to envision under what circumstances, in the context of a “typical” motor vehicle accident, a party is more than equally at fault for an indivisible injury. While there may be cases with extenuating circumstances (e.g. excessive speeding, driving intoxicated, etc.), the cause of a significant portion, if not the majority, of motor vehicle accidents could be classified as “momentary lapses of attention”.  Could one momentary lapse of attention ever be said to be more blameworthy than another?