Prisoner's personal injury action stemming from court van accident dismissed

No liability for city or van driver: Ontario Court of Appeal

Prisoner's personal injury action stemming from court van accident dismissed

A trial judge’s blending of the issues of liability and the availability of punitive damages did not prejudice the injured party in a personal injury case, the Ontario Court of Appeal has ruled.

A vehicle struck the back of a van transporting the appellant and his fellow prisoners to court. The appellant, who was injured, sued the van’s driver and the City of Toronto, which owned the van, for negligence.

The appellant alleged the following:

  • the prisoner vans were negligently designed in several ways
  • the city did virtually nothing to protect the safety of prisoners in the van
  • the van’s driver disregarded prisoner welfare after the accident
  • the defendants’ attitude toward prisoner safety showed a callous and wanton disregard for their wellbeing
  • he was only asking for the defendants to be held liable if the court found that punitive damages were proper

The appellant’s approach exclusively focused on the safety of the prisoners as riders in the van. The city, on the other hand, took a broader view of the relevant safety considerations, including the protection of prisoners from each other while in the van, of members of the public potentially having direct or indirect contact with the prisoners, and of the officers transporting the prisoners.

Justice Kevin Whitaker of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice considered both the appellant’s and the city’s approaches as rational and endorsed neither approach over the other. The trial judge ultimately dismissed the action against the city since the appellant failed to establish the kind of conduct justifying punitive damages. The Toronto Police Service’s conduct was not reprehensible, deserving of the community’s condemnation, or attracting sanction and denunciation, he said.

The judge also dismissed the action against the van’s driver.

City, driver need not pay punitive damages

In Benson v. Cichorczyk, 2022 ONCA 800, the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal.

First, the appellate court agreed with the trial judge’s dismissal of the action against the van’s driver. The appellant’s counsel acknowledged that the negligence claim was based on the van’s alleged design deficiencies. The van’s driver could not be held liable for the van’s alleged design defects or for punitive damages arising from those defects, the appellate court said.

Second, the Court of Appeal discussed the action against the city. The appellate court noted that, while the parties treated the availability of punitive damages as the trial’s sole issue, such damages would be relevant only after the defendants were found liable.

According to the appellate court, the trial judge correctly stated the applicable law, identified the particulars on which the appellant relied in support of the negligence claim, accurately summarized the parties’ positions, and described the competing positions as presenting different approaches to the safety of prisoners transported to and from court.

The judge made findings supported by the evidence and committed no errors in his treatment of the punitive damages claim, the appellate court added.

Lastly, the appellant’s counsel challenged certain parts of the evidence. The Court of Appeal found that these references to the evidence only suggested the possibility of arriving at other findings based on the entire record. This possibility was not a reason to intervene in the judge’s findings, the appellate court said.

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