Car Accidents in the United States and Legal Actions in Ontario

On May 14, 2009, the Court of Appeal for Ontario released a decision in a case that I was involved in on behalf of the plaintiffs. The decision, Silvestri v. Hardy, 2009 ONCA 400, concerned an action brought in Ontario as result of a car accident in Michigan. The plaintiff resides in Hamilton and has sought medical attention in Ontario due to the injuries she sustained in the accident. The defendant claims that the accident was caused by an unidentified driver who he was seeking to avoid when he collided with the plaintiff. Given this position, the plaintiff was required to take action against her own insurer pursuant to the unidentified motorist provisions in the insurance policy. This part of the claim must proceed in Ontario.

The question at issue on the appeal was whether the action should be heard in the Ontario courts or whether Michigan was the more appropriate forum for the resolution of the dispute. A Superior Court judge had ruled that the action should be heard in Michigan, as there were a number of witnesses to the accident who are resident there, and Michigan law would govern the action. The Court of Appeal reversed the decision and held that the action should proceed in Ontario.

The Court noted that the number of witnesses for each side were evenly divided, but that if the action were tried in Michigan there would be the possibility of inconsistent verdicts given that the claim by the plaintiff against her own insurer would have to proceed in Ontario. As a result, the overriding goals of efficiency and justice which underlie the system of conflicts of law mandated that the action proceed in Ontario rather than Michigan.

While the Court did not have to consider the issue, it can be said that statutory provisions in Ontario make the forum of the dispute of lesser importance in car accident cases that occur in North America. Section 243(1) of the Insurance Act provides that automobile insurance provided for under the Act applies to the use or operation of a vehicle in Canada or the United States. Section 252(1) of the Act provides that in the case of liability arising out of the use or operation of a vehicle in Canada or the United States, the insurer is liable up to the minimum limits prescribed for in that province, territory or jurisdiction if those limits are higher than the limits in the policy, and the insured appoints the insurer to appear and defend an action in any province or territory of Canada or any jurisdiction in the United States. Section 57(1) of the Statutory Accident Benefits Schedule provides that the insurer is required to pay accident benefits properly payable if the accident occurred in another province or territory of Canada or a jurisdiction in the United States.

In light of these provisions, it can readily be seen that, insofar as the rights and obligations of the insured person and the insurer are concerned, there is little difference if a car accident occurs in Ontario, Canada or Ontario, California.