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Being Struck by a Bullet During a Police Car Chase: An Automobile Accident?

By Eloïse Robichaud, from our Insurance Law Practice Group

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August 20, 2021 — Since the adoption of the Automobile Insurance Act [Act], a lot has been written about its inherent concept of causation. Cohen c. Ville de Montréal, 2021 QCCS 1874, a recent decision of the Superior Court, provided an overview of the applicable principles.

On the night of June 15, 2017, Noam Cohen, a young man under psychiatric care for psychotic disorders, drove his vehicle while in a state of crisis and intoxication. At the request of his family and friends, the Montreal Police was called on the scene. The pursuit culminated by Mr. Cohen being struck by a bullet while his car was in motion as he tried to escape from the police. He died in the hospital later that night.

Mr. Cohen’s family filed a lawsuit for damages against the City of Montreal in Superior Court, accusing the police of using excessive force.

At the preliminary stage, the City filed a motion to dismiss the claim on the basis that the Superior Court did not have jurisdiction in that the damages resulted from the use of an automobile within the meaning of the Act, and that section 83.57 therefore applied:

Compensation under this title stands in lieu of all rights and remedies by reason of bodily injury and no action in that respect shall be admitted before any court of justice.

Subject to sections 83.63 and 83.64, where bodily injury was caused by an automobile, the benefits or pecuniary benefits provided for the compensation of such injury by the Act respecting industrial accidents and occupational diseases (chapter A-3.001), the Act to promote good citizenship (chapter C-20) or the Crime Victims Compensation Act (chapter I-6) stand in lieu of all rights and remedies by reason of such bodily injury and no action in that respect shall be admitted before any court of justice.

The City argued that according to the claim, there was a close link between the use of the automobile and the injury, and the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec was the only entity competent to compensate the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs, on the other hand, argued that this was a fortuitous event, the vehicle being merely the place where the accident occurred and thus the Act did not apply.

At this stage, the Court had to determine whether the claimed injury was caused “by an automobile, by the use thereof or by the load carried in or on an automobile” [“damage caused by an automobile”, s 1 of the Act].

To answer the question, the Court discussed the background to the enactment of the Act and the objectives and principles of the regime, noting that the Act is to be given a broad and liberal interpretation. A sufficiently close connection between the presence of the automobile and the injury must exist.

The Court then analyzed decisions based on similar facts. It relied, amongst others, on the decision of the Court of Appeal in Québec (Société de l’assurance automobile) c. Benoit, 1999 CanLII 13598 QCCA, which it felt bound to follow under the rule of precedent.

In that case, a police officer was sued for inflicting gunshot wounds during a car chase. The officers had fired their weapons towards the pavement to deter offenders who were attempting to flee following a burglary. A bullet ricocheted and struck one of the offenders. The Court concluded that neither the driving, handling, operation, or presence of the car caused the injury and that the ricochet could have occurred in other circumstances. Consequently, the Act did not apply.

Here, the Superior Court concluded that the facts of the case did not support a dismissal of the action at the preliminary stage and that it was otherwise bound by Benoit.

The City presented a motion for leave to appeal which was dismissed on the grounds that section 83.57 of the Act, while it prohibits a court from awarding damages resulting from an automobile accident, does not take away the Superior Court’s jurisdiction to determine whether the injury claimed arose from such an accident. The Court of Appeal added that the Superior Court’s comments about being bound by the decision rendered in Benoit does not bind the judge hearing the case on its merits.

If this case proceeds to trial, it will be interesting to see what the Court concludes with respect to causation between the automobile and the injury.

To be followed.