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The Fast & the Furious: Hard Drugs, Fast Cars & Untimely Death

Case Study: Isaac Estate v Matuszynska

David Elmaleh
David Elmaleh
Partner

Gabriela Caracas
Gabriela Caracas
Student-at-Law

March 2018

by David Elmaleh and Gabriela Caracas

In the midst of a crisis, the common law Doctrine of Emergency is a defendant's saving grace.

When faced with a sudden emergency that a driver is not responsible for creating, he or she cannot be held to a standard of conduct of a reasonable driver in ordinary circumstances – the unique and exigent circumstances must be taken into account when measuring the appropriate standard of care and whether or not there was a breach.

On February 23, 2018, in a split-decision, the Ontario Court of Appeal in Isaac Estate v Matuszynska1 upheld a lower court's decision granting summary judgment and dismissing the action, where the Doctrine of Emergency was found to apply in a drug transaction that went horribly wrong.

The Facts

On April 14, 2009, seven individuals occupying two cars met in a dark parking lot behind a bar in London, Ontario to execute a drug deal. The transaction quickly turned sour as an argument ensued between two of the individuals, namely Glen Michael Isaac and Jean Lafontaine. Mr. Isaac was a passenger in Mr. Lafontaine's vehicle, which was owned by IIona Irena Matuszynska. As a result of their quarrel, Mr. Isaac exited the vehicle operated by Mr. Lafontaine and entered the other vehicle. However, he quickly returned with an unknown object which he used to smash Mr. Lafontaine's driver's side window and leap inside the car.

Mr. Lafontaine, in a moment of despair, took evasive action and started driving, all the while fighting off Mr Isaac's attempt to commandeer the steering wheel. Disastrously, the vehicle hit a curb. Mr. Isaac was thrown from the car, struck his head and died instantly.

Mr. Lafontaine admitted that he had consumed crack cocaine prior to getting behind the wheel of the car. Although he was charged with driving while prohibited, breach of a recognizance, and a drug offence, the London Police Service concluded that Mr. Isaac's death was accidental.

The deceased's mother, siblings, and two infant daughters commenced an action in negligence pursuant to the Family Law Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. F. 3 (FLA) alleging, among other things, that Mr. Lafontaine had contributed to the deceased's death. The deceased's mother not only sought damages in her personal capacity but also as estate trustee of her son's estate.

State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (the statutory third party) and the respondent, IIona Irena Matuszynska, successfully brought motions for summary judgment.

Motions for Summary Judgment

Justice Helen A. Rady dismissed the action, finding that the Doctrine of Emergency was a complete answer to the plaintiffs' claim. The legal test requires that the harm be (1) imminent and (2) unforeseen. Justice Rady emphasized that:

Mr. Lafontaine acted in a matter of seconds, in a time of panic and confusion, when he reasonably feared for his safety and that of his passengers.

"Mr. Lafontaine acted in a matter of seconds, in a time of panic and confusion, when he reasonably feared for his safety and that of his passengers. In these circumstances, Lafontaine was not to be held to a standard of perfection; the standard expected of him was that of an ordinarily prudent person acting in the stress of an emergency."2

As a result, Mr. Lafontaine was found to have acted reasonably in the context of the emergency he faced and he could not be faulted for Mr. Isaac's action. The consequence of the finding that Mr. Isaac was the sole author of his own misfortune was that it prevented the FLA claims from proceeding, as their lawsuit was wholly dependent on the deceased successfully maintaining an action against the moving parties.

The Appeal

The appellants submitted that the motion judge erred in applying the Doctrine of Emergency to find that Mr. Lafontaine did not fall short of the standard of care expected of him.

Majority Decision

The appellants specifically argued that Mr. Lafontaine did not pass the second branch of the doctrine of emergency, contending that he could have reasonably anticipated that Mr. Isaac was about to act negligently and expose himself to danger. Justice G. Huscroft, with support of Justice Lauwers, rejected this argument and emphasized that the mere possibility of a dangerous situation occurring in the course of a drug deal, in the middle of the night, in an empty parking lot, was not a sufficient indicator of the attack that transpired that evening. Justice Huscroft maintained that the motion judge did not err in concluding that Lafontaine did not anticipate Mr. Isaac's actions, and further expressed that it was not the role of the court to reweigh the evidence that was before the motion judge to reach a different conclusion.

Dissenting Opinion

Justice A. Pepall issued a strong dissenting opinion, and was highly critical of the majority opinion's decision to uphold the conclusion awarding summary judgment in favour of the defendants:

[50] In my view, the new and welcomed approach to summary judgment described in Hryniak v. Mauldin, 2014 SCC 7, [2014] 1 S.C.R. 87 does not call for the granting of a judgment anchored on minimal factual findings made in the face of unresolved material inconsistencies in the evidence, dependent on an infrequently used and ill-defined doctrine of emergency absent any analysis of the elements of that doctrine, and based on a finding not actually made by the motions judge but determined by my colleague to be "implicit in her decision".

Justice Pepall was of the opinion that the motion judge failed to consider whether the confrontation could have reasonably been anticipated by Mr. Lafontaine since he was warned by a passenger in the other car to "get out of here". Mr. Lafontaine apparently ignored those warnings as well as his own gut feeling that "something wasn't right". Instead, he kept the vehicle where it was, but shifted it into drive in response to the deceased's growing agitation.

Justice Pepall confirmed that in negligence claims, an emergency does not amount to a defence; rather it informs the standard of care. To avoid liability, a person must exercise the standard of care that would be expected of an ordinary, reasonable, and prudent person in the same circumstances. What is reasonable depends in part on the likelihood of a foreseeable harm.

The doctrine will not apply where the emergency could have been reasonably anticipated.

However, to constitute an emergency in a legal sense, the emergent situation must be imminent and unforeseen. The doctrine will not apply where the emergency could have been reasonably anticipated.

Unfortunately for the deceased's family members, Justice Pepall's opinion was not shared by her colleagues.

Conclusion

It is not surprising that this recent appellate case was a split-decision. It is quite difficult, sitting in a courtroom, to be a "Monday Morning Quarterback" and try and determine what an individual, facing an apparent emergency, could or should have done in given circumstances.

What makes the factual matrix in this case all the more difficult is that it involved a drug transaction, in the middle of the night, in an empty parking lot, which no doubt carries with it its own inherent tension, anxiety, fear and concern. A "fight or flight" internal struggle was likely going on in the driver's head, with serious consequences if he "chose wrong".

This case is demonstrative of the fact that the Doctrine of Emergency is a viable tool for defendants, insurers, and counsel in these types of challenging claims, provided the emergency is "imminent and unforeseen".

As Justice Peppal noted in dissent, the doctrine is infrequently used, and ill-defined. However, in the case at bar, three out of the four judges hearing the case (the motion judge, and two members of the appellate panel) preferred to apply the doctrine, confirming that it certainly is worthwhile to raise, in appropriate circumstances.

Read the full Court of Appeal decision.


1 2018 ONCA 177.
2 2018 ONCA 177 at para18.


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