As two recent court cases show, getting injured while clearing snow from a car does not immediately bring to mind the concept of an automobile accident. The Court of Appeal, however, in its recent decisions in Vaillancourt v. Blackburn and Hôtel Motel Manic Inc. v. Pitre, has recognized that such an injury can be characterized as an “automobile accident” within the meaning of the Automobile Insurance Act, CQLR, c. A-25 (the “Act”), thereby putting an end to a prevailing conflict in the case law.
I – The facts
In the two decisions, rendered the same day, the Court of Appeal overturned two trial judgments whose fact patterns and legal conclusions are similar. While they were clearing snow off their respective automobiles, Laval Blackburn (“Blackburn”) and Suzanne Pitre (“Pitre”) both slipped and fell on a patch of ice.
After having their claims for compensation rejected by Quebec’s automobile insurance board, the Société d’assurance automobile du Québec (the “SAAQ”), Blackburn and Pitre each sued the owners of the parking lots where they fell, alleging that the lots were not properly maintained.
At first instance, the defendants asked the court to dismiss the actions on the grounds that the injuries were sustained in an automobile accident. They submitted that it is not possible to file a civil suit in such situations, given the public no-fault automobile insurance regime in Quebec.
II – The trial decisions
The Superior Court (in the Blackburn case) and the Court of Québec (in the Pitre case) had to decide whether the action of clearing snow from an automobile constituted a use of the vehicle, and if so whether that action came within the maintenance exclusion in the Act. If it did not constitute such a use or was an excluded action under the statute, the accident that thereupon occurred is not covered by the public insurance regime, such that a civil suit is possible.
In each case the trial court concluded that the civil suit could proceed, and denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss.
III – The appel decisions
The Court of Appeal concluded that the action of clearing snow from a vehicle is connected with the use of the automobile and not with the maintenance thereof. The accidents of Blackburn and Pitre are therefore covered by the Act and the injuries sustained should be compensated by the SAAQ.
A. Damage caused by the use of an automobile
The Court first of all had to determine if the injuries were caused by the use of an automobile. The case law has established that in instances where damage was caused by the use of an automobile:
- a broad and liberal interpretation of the Act is called for;
- it is not necessary for the victim to be in the automobile;
- it is not necessary for the automobile to have been moving when the accident occurred.
The Court found that the action of clearing snow from an automobile is intimately related to its use, as the snow is being cleared for the purpose of its imminent use.
B. Action in connection with the maintenance of an automobile
The Court then had to determine if the accident occurred while the automobile was being maintained, i.e. while performing an activity aimed at looking after a motor vehicle or keeping it in good condition. If so, this would be an excluded action under the Act and thus could not give rise to compensation by the SAAQ in the event of a concomitant accident.
The Court found that the action of clearing snow from an automobile is related to its use, and is not for the purpose of keeping it in good condition. The term “maintenance” denotes periodic actions with a lasting effect, which is not the case with clearing snow from a vehicle, which must be done repeatedly without any long-term effect during the winter season.
IV – Author’s comments
These two decisions of the Court of Appeal reverse a virtually uniform line of case law of civil courts and administrative tribunals holding that an injury sustained while clearing snow from an automobile is not covered by the Act.
This reversal is not surprising. We contended, for example, in an article published last fall concerning the Superior Court’s decision in Blackburn, that the trial judge’s reasoning on the concept of the use of an automobile seemed to depart from developments in the case law in that regard. We also expressed some reservations regarding the application of the maintenance exclusion in the Act.
A. Use of an automobile
Whether or not the automobile was running at the time of the accident does not appear to have been determinative in the Court’s reasoning. The Court is evidently of the view that snow-clearing while the vehicle is on or off is to be treated in the same way.
The Court found that the vehicle was being cleared of snow for the purpose of its imminent use, that the use of an automobile requires it to be cleared of snow, and that doing so is a necessary measure for the safe use of the vehicle.
B. The maintenance exclusion
With respect to the maintenance exclusion, the Court espoused a stricter definition tied to keeping the automobile in good condition. In addition, it took the view that the following wording in the Act, “an action performed … in connection with the maintenance, repair, alteration or improvement of an automobile” refers to a one-time or periodic action having a lasting effect, as opposed to a procedure that must be done repeatedly without any long-term effect during the winter season.
Our takeaway from this decision is that such situations should not be analyzed in accordance with the traditional concept of an automobile accident. It is not necessary that the injury or damage be caused by the vehicle itself. It suffices if it occurred in connection with the general use of the automobile. Each situation is unique and must be viewed through the prism of whether there is a plausible, logical and sufficiently proximate connection with an automobile or its use.