In Alberta, automobile insurance is largely governed by the Insurance Act, RSA 2000, c I-3 [Insurance Act]. The Insurance Act sets out certain requirements that every motor vehicle policy must satisfy. One of these requirements is set out in Section 571(1) of the Insurance Act, which reads:
571(1) Every contract evidenced by a motor vehicle liability policy insures, in respect of any one accident, to a limit of not less than $200,000, exclusive of interest and costs, against liability resulting from bodily injury to or the death of one or more persons and loss of or damage to property. (emphasis added)
While section 571(1) seems straightforward, “any one accident” is a term of art. The phrase “any one accident”, has been interpreted by the Courts as “any occurrence” or “incident” or “event”. What this means is that the various events comprising a “composite” or chain reaction accident may be referred to, for purposes of this provision, as “any one accident”. The following two cases demonstrate how the definition is applied in practice. In both cases, the Court had to determine whether the incident in question constituted one or more accidents in order to determining the maximum allowable payment out of the province’s motor vehicle accident claims fund (the “Fund”). Under the legislation, the Minister could not pay out of the Fund:
(a) more than $5,000, exclusive of costs, on account of injury to or the death of one person, and subject to such limit for any one person so injured or killed, not more than $10,000, exclusive of costs, on account of injury to or the death of two or more persons in any one accident; and
(b) not more than $1,000, exclusive of costs for damage to property resulting from any one accident. (emphasis added)
In Hopkins v White, 1950 CarswellOnt 222,  OWN 372 (ONHC), three children were standing on a sidewalk when they were struck by a car and injured. An action was brought on behalf of each child, with the child’s father joining in each case to claim out-of-pocket expenses. In total, damages in the amount of $37,188.25 was ordered against the defendant owner and defendant driver. Unfortunately, the defendant driver was serving a term of imprisonment for the action and the defendant owner was insured under a policy limiting liability to $5,000.
Unable to collect on the judgments, the plaintiffs applied to the Court for an order directing the Minister to pay monies out of the Fund to satisfy the judgments. The question before the Court was therefore whether the incident was one accident (in which case the limit of the payment out of the Fund was $10,000) or three accidents (in which case the limit of the payment out of the Fund was $5,000 to each of the three sets of plaintiffs). The plaintiffs argued that an accident had occurred to each of the three child plaintiffs, entirely independent, excepting as to the extent of their being in the same locality. Unsurprisingly, it was argued on behalf of the Minister that there was one cause of action and therefore one accident only.
Therefore, the Court’s decision came down to the meaning of the word “accident”. If “accident” was given its common meaning, being an “occurrence or incident or event”, there was just one accident: the result of the reckless driving of the taxicab driver. If the meaning was something that happened to a person, there would be an accident each time the motor vehicle collided with anyone or anything. If each individual injury constituted an accident, the words preceding the word “accident” (i.e. “on account of injury to or the death of two or more persons”) would have little meaning. Under that definition, the only occasion where one accident would cover two or more persons injured would be when those persons were in the motor vehicle itself, and practically every form of street accident would be excluded. Accordingly, the Court concluded that “accident” mean occurrence or incident or event, not individual injury. Consequently, there was only one accident, the result of the reckless driving of the driver, and the maximum for any one accident applied.
In Carroll v Furlong, 1955 CarswellNfld 7,  3 DLR 279 (NLTD), the defendant driver, while under the influence of alcohol, crashed into three vehicles in quick succession but over a substantial distance. The plaintiff, who was the occupant of the third vehicle struck by the defendant, received a default judgment against the defendant but was unable to collect. Accordingly, the plaintiff attempted to collect a portion of the judgment from the Fund. The Minister, however, took the position that the three collisions described above were one accident, and that “not more than $1,000” could be paid out for property damage arising from the incident. By the time the plaintiff attempted to collect from the Fund, one of the other two drivers hit by the defendant already had an order on the Fund and the sum remaining fell short of the plaintiff’s claim. The plaintiff applied to the Court arguing that the whole event consisted of three successive accidents, in which case $1,000 was available in respect of each. Although reluctantly, the Court accepted that “accident”, as used in the legislation, may mean some sort of compound event.
With this definition in mind, the Court considered the three impacts. Apparently focusing on the distance over which the incident occurred, about 250 yards of street, the Court held there was no common factor in the three accidents save the condition of the offending driver. The Court commented that “if one car were struck and driven onto another; or if the offending driver had pushed between two cars and struck both; or if several persons were injured in one vehicle…” the events could constitute a single accident. In this case, however, the defendant driver had side-swiped three cars at intervals of approximately a quarter of a mile. The Court held that the three accidents were distinct and that, consequently, the $1,000 limit applied afresh to each accident.
While the above-described cases considered provisions dealing with a Fund and not statutory requirements of policy, our Court has applied these cases (and the definition of accident) to a predecessor of section 571: section 300 of the Alberta Insurance Act, RSA 1970, c 187 [Insurance Act (1970)]. Section 300 reads in part:
300. (1) Every contract evidenced by a motor vehicle liability policy insures, in respect of any one accident…
(2) The contract shall be interpreted to mean that where, by reason of any one accident…
In Nums v Perth Insurance Co., 1979 CarswellAlta 16 (ABSC), the Court considered the interpretation of section 300 of the Insurance Act (1970) in the context of two collisions which occurred in short succession. The collisions occurred when vehicle A, traveling immediately in front of the plaintiff, pulled out to pass on a highway and collided head-on with a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction, subsequently colliding with the plaintiff’s vehicle. The plaintiff’s vehicle was travelling fairly close to vehicle A in that there was very little time interval between the first impact of the vehicles hitting head-on and the second impact of the plaintiff’s vehicle.
The issue before the Court was whether or not the circumstances outlined above constituted “any one accident” or more than one accident. The Court considered the judicial interpretation of “any one accident” in Hopkins v White and Carroll v Furlong (among others), nothing that in these cases the phrase being interpreted, “any one accident”, was contained in legislation providing relief to parties injured where no insurance is available. The object of the legislation there being considered was relief against hardship and not to provide a fund in the nature of a free re-insurance scheme for insurers of those who have suffered damage as a result of the operation of motor vehicles. Despite the different objectives, the Court held that the word “accident” as used in section 300 must be assigned the same meaning as found in the authorities mentioned, namely, “an occurrence or incident or event”. Using that broader definition of the word “accident”, the Court determined that the collisions constituted only one accident.
Whether a motor vehicle collision constitutes “any one accident” or multiple accidents can have a significant impact on the injured parties’ potential recovery under a motor vehicle liability policy. This should be taken into account when considering whether to commence and how to best defend a personal injury action resulting from a motor vehicle collision.