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Ontario court addresses the issue of partial summary judgment

In Sheldon v. Beaulieu, 2020 ONSC 4908, the Ontario Superior Court granted the moving defendants’ motion for summary judgment in a case involving a head-on motor vehicle crash, allegedly caused by ice on a roadway.

On Jan. 28, 2016, the plaintiff was a passenger in a vehicle driven by the defendant, Eric Jean-Louis Beaulieu (Eric). Eric was driving on Highway 20 near Thorold, Ont., when his vehicle slid into the oncoming lane after hitting some ice. This resulted in a collision with an oncoming school bus driven by the defendant, Gloria Scherer (the Bus Driver), and owned by First Canada ULC (First Canada) (collectively, the Bus Defendants).

The main plaintiff and his family, who were pursuing claims under the Family Law Act, commenced an action against Eric, the Bus Driver, First Canada, the Regional Municipality of Niagara (Niagara), and a body shop. The Bus Defendants subsequently brought a motion of summary judgment to dismiss the claim against them. Niagara opposed the motion. The plaintiffs and the remaining co-defendants consented to the Bus Defendants’ motion.

The issue before the Court was whether the Bus Driver fell below the standard of care of a reasonably prudent driver, and if so, did her conduct cause and/or contribute to the plaintiff’s injuries.

Evidence on the motion

In dismissing the claim against the moving defendants, Justice Sweeny reviewed the evidence of both Eric and the Bus Driver. Eric had indicated that as he turned his steering wheel to navigate a bend in the road, he felt like his vehicle traversed an “ice rink,” which sent his vehicle sideways into the lane occupied by the bus. Eric indicated the bus was fully in its own lane at the time of the collision.

The Bus Driver’s evidence was that as she came around the bend in the road, she noticed an oncoming vehicle in the opposite lane lose control and spin in front of the bus. The Bus Driver took her foot off the accelerator and briefly hovered over the brake, before pressing the brake prior to the collision. She did not press the brake immediately because this may have caused the bus to spin.

Expert evidence

In response to the motion, Niagara attempted to rely on an expert report that was appended to an affidavit, not sworn by the expert himself. While Justice Sweeny excluded the expert report for this reason, he nonetheless briefly considered its contents. In doing so, he concluded that even if the expert report was admissible, it did not assist Niagara’s position. Specifically, the expert opined that had the Bus Driver reacted sooner by applying her brakes, this “could have reduced the impact and force of the collision” (emphasis in original).

Justice Sweeny stated that even if it was proven that the Bus Driver breached the standard of care in her decision concerning braking, the evidence of the expert did not establish that this decision caused the plaintiff’s harm. The expert suggesting that it “could” have made a difference was not sufficient to prove causation.

Appropriateness of partial summary judgment

Although Justice Sweeny recognized the case law which suggests a cautious approach to granting partial summary judgment (the claim would be continuing against Niagara and all of the other defendants), he concluded this was an appropriate case to do so. He stated that the issue could be easily bifurcated, and the remainder of the action could be dealt with expeditiously and in a cost-effective manner. Further, there would be no delay to the remainder of the action, and this result is unlikely to create any future inconsistent findings.

Overall, this decision lays a solid foundation for arguments in future partial summary judgment motions, by succinctly explaining the factors to be considered in such circumstances.

Also, while it was ultimately of no consequence, counsel seeking to rely on expert opinions on a motion for summary judgment should append the report to an affidavit sworn by the expert to avoid any arguments of inadmissibility.

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