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Controlled Intersection: What is the legal duty upon the dominant driver?

3 minute read

Can a driver proceeding through a green light at an intersection be found negligent if he is unaware of a vehicle coming through the intersection on a red light and a collision ensues? Put another way, can the driver with the right-of-way be found negligent if he could have become aware of the other vehicle proceeding through a red light, or does the duty upon the dominant driver only arise once he actually becomes aware of the offending motorist?

The issue set out above was recently discussed by Mr. Justice Ricchetti in Evan Matthew Sant et al v. Jharmal Singh Sekhon et al, 2013 ONSC 2982.

The facts are uncomplicated. The defendant was driving a transport truck approaching a traffic signal controlled intersection. The traffic light was green in the direction of his travel. The defendant was not speeding. When the defendant was in the intersection on the green light, he saw a vehicle southbound driving through the intersection on a red light. Unfortunately a significant collision occurred and serious injuries were sustained by the passenger in the vehicle proceeding through the red light.

Evidence developed during the jury trial that witnesses observed the plaintiff vehicle was unlikely to stop for the red light. Indeed one of the witnesses, who also proceeding through the green light with the right-of-way, began to slow down and brake out of concern that the plaintiff vehicle would not stop for the red light.

Counsel for the defendant driver submitted that there is a distinction between the legal obligation upon a driver when approaching a controlled intersection verses an uncontrolled intersection. Counsel argued that at an uncontrolled intersection the dominant driver can be found negligent if he fails to take reasonable care once he actually becomes aware of the servient driver or should have become aware by the exercise of reasonable care. At a controlled intersection, however, the dominant driver is only under a duty to take reasonable care once aware of the presence of the illegally operated vehicle. Defence counsel relied upon older Court of Appeal jurisprudence that arguably distinguished the duty on a driver at a controlled verses uncontrolled intersection.

While Mr. Justice Ricchetti accepted the principle that drivers are entitled to proceed upon the assumption that other drivers will follow the rules of the road, he made it clear that having the right-of-way at a controlled intersection does not absolve a driver from exercising reasonable care. There is a common law duty on users of highways to exercise reasonable care in the operation of a vehicle whether or not they are at a controlled or uncontrolled intersection.

The lesson from this case is that counsel should not jump to the conclusion too soon that because a driver has clearly violated the “rules of the road” liability is no longer an issue. A driver with the right-of-way, even at a controlled intersection, has an obligation to exercise reasonable care in the operation of his motor vehicle.

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