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Apportioning fault to left turning drivers

I want to draw attention to an aspect of everyday driving that every driver must be aware of. Drivers make left turns every time they get behind the wheel. People need to be aware of what exactly their duties are while making this maneuver. I am going to discuss two cases that illustrate the amount of care required when making a left turn.

Liability can be quite complicated to determine, which depends on the specific facts in each case. The plaintiff can be found to be anywhere between 0-100% at fault. When a plaintiff is found to be at fault for a portion of the accident, we call this contributory negligent, then the amount of his or her award is reduced by the percentage that he or she is at fault. If someone is found to be 50% at fault for the accident, then they will only receive 50% of the damages determined by the court.

In the case Christensen v Jand, 2018 BCSC 1294 [Christensen], the plaintiff was driving northbound straight through an intersection in Burnaby. The defendant was the left turning driver. The court determined that the relevant law was found in section 174 of the Motor Vehicle Act, which states that the left turning driver must yield the right of way to any traffic that constitutes an immediate hazard, and the driver is only allowed to proceed left when he or she has appropriately yielded and used their left turning signal, as governed by the statute. The meaning of immediate hazard is described as when the approaching driver must take some sudden or violent action to avoid the threat of the collision with the vehicle that is attempting a left turn.

In Christensen, the facts were straightforward. The court heard from both parties, each telling slightly different versions of the collision. The defendant claimed that the plaintiff should be held jointly liable since the plaintiff made a sudden lane change before the intersection to avoid stopping behind another left turning vehicle ahead of him. The defendant didn’t notice the lane change before commencing their left turn. The court found that plaintiff changed lanes safely, which he was entitled to do according to the Motor Vehicle Act, and proceeded through a flashing green light. The court determined that the defendant was 100% at fault for the collision, since as a left turning driver, one has an obligation to yield to an immediate hazard.

In the case, Coffey v. Sabbaghan, 2020 BCCA 335 [Coffey], the plaintiff was a left turning driver and the defendant was a straight through driver. On appeal, the court determined that the plaintiff and the defendant were equally liable for the accident. The court found that the plaintiff did not deliberately enter the intersection knowing that Mr. Sabbaghan’s vehicle constituted an immediate hazard to him. The plaintiff attempted to make a difficult turn across three lanes of traffic but failed to ensure that it was safe to do so. The court found that the defendant did not try to run a red light, but failed to pay attention to cars travelling northbound with him, failed to recognize that they were slowing down or stopping, and failed to reduce his speed so that he could ascertain the reasons for the slowing vehicles.

The court in Coffey said in paragraph 44 that these types of driving maneuvers are commonplace and although improper, usually have no negative consequences. The court said they were unable to conclude that the conduct of either party was so egregious to fall below the standard of care to be found to be solely at fault.

As drivers, we owe a duty to not make a left turn when it is unsafe to do so. It is important to be aware of this, since making an unsafe left turn can cause serious injuries to yourself or those around you and have significant legal consequences as well. The left turning driver is presumed to be at fault, and must show that the oncoming drivers did not constitute an immediate hazard. This is a tough burden for the plaintiff to bear.


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