If a tree falls in quebec, can anybody sue? Supreme Court’s newest decision on causation in automobile insurance contains surprise

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A new decision of the Supreme Court of Canada highlights a fundamental difference between purely no-fault automobile insurance jurisdictions like Quebec and fault-based automobile insurance jurisdictions like Alberta. The facts of Westmount (City) v. Rossy, 2012 SCC 30 are very straight forward.

In 2006 Gabriel Rossy was operating an automobile on the streets of the City of Westmount when a tree owned by the City fell on his vehicle, killing Mr. Rossy. The Plaintiffs, surviving family members, sued the City for its failure in properly maintaining the tree. The City moved to dismiss the action on the basis that the Plaintiffs’ exclusive remedy was under Quebec’s no-fault scheme in the Automobile Insurance Act. The Quebec Superior Court agreed with the City and dismissed the action. The Quebec Court of Appeal reversed that decision, reasoning that “the automobile is merely what he happened to be in when the tree fell. He could just as well have been walking, cycling, rollerblading, etc., and suffered the same injury.”

On further appeal the Supreme Court of Canada reversed the Quebec Court of Appeal and reinstated the result from the Quebec Superior Court. Justice LeBel delivered the Court’s unanimous judgment. The issue was whether Mr. Rossy’s death resulted from an “accident” as defined in the Act. Applying that definition the Court had to determine whether his death was “caused by an automobile, by the use thereof or by the load carried in or on an automobile”.

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