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City loses appeal of $12M negligence award

Award dates back to 2000 car crash that left woman with devastating injuries 
Greater Sudbury has lost its appeal of a $12 million judgment awarded to a city woman who suffered devastating injuries in a car crash 17 years ago. (File photo)

Greater Sudbury has lost its appeal of a $12 million judgment awarded to a city woman who suffered devastating injuries in a car crash 17 years ago.

Lisa Marie Belanger was 20 years old when she was driving on Regional Road 35 at 11:15 a.m. on Nov. 22, 2000, in what was then the Region of Sudbury. She lost control of the car in slippery winter conditions and received traumatic injuries that will profoundly affect her for the rest of her life.

“After the accident, the respondents, Ms. Belanger and her family members, sued the appellant Region and also the City of Greater Sudbury in negligence, claiming that they had failed to ... to keep RR35 in a reasonable state of repair,” the appeals transcript says. “At trial, only liability was in issue. The parties agreed that the appropriate quantum of damages was approximately $12 million.”  

At the trial, the judge ruled the Region was “100 per cent  liable” for the damages.

“He found that RR35 was snow covered and slippery at the time and location of the accident and that these conditions constituted a state of non-repair,” the transcript says. “He also held that, but for these conditions, the accident would not have occurred and Ms. Belanger would not have sustained injury.” 

At issue was the refreezing of the road, which had been salted at 7:15 a.m., and plowed between 10:15-11:15 a.m.

“By the time of this plowing, the 7:15 a.m. salting had lost its effectiveness due to dilution caused by falling snow and a refreeze of the road had occurred,” the transcripts say. “As a result of the refreeze, the snow had already bonded to the asphalt of the road, rendering the plowing ineffective in clearing the road to bare pavement. 

“The southbound lane of RR35, in which Ms. Belanger was travelling, was only re-salted shortly after the accident, more than four hours after the initial 7:15 a.m. salting.”

Lawyers for the city argued that, under laws in effect at the time, municipalities weren't responsible for failure to keep a road clear if it has made reasonable efforts to clear the road and could not reasonable known about the danger.

But the trial judge accepted testimony from Russell Brownlee, a winter maintenance expert testifying for Belanger's lawyer. He said the concept and conditions under which a refreeze could happen were well known at the time of the crash.

The Region's employees should have realized this, an argument the judge accepted, and supported by the appeals judge.

“At the end of the day, the trial judge held that the Region’s employees reasonably ought to have been expected to know of the emergence of conditions on RR35 giving rise to the risk of a refreeze, conditions that were caused by the Region’s failure to employ the plowing and salting sequence of preventative maintenance works outlined by Mr. Brownlee and contemplated by the Region’s own standards and procedures,” he wrote.

He also rejected assertions by the city's lawyers that Belanger's driving contributed to the crash.

“There was no evidence at trial of any action or omission attributable to Ms. Belanger that caused her car to cross the centre line of the highway,” the judge wrote. “Nor, as the trial judge noted at para. 108, was there any suggestion that she engaged in 'any deliberate maneuver that could be construed as unusual or dangerous.' 

“There was also no evidence that Ms. Belanger was inattentive to or distracted from her driving, or that the condition of her car contributed in any way to the accident. The trial judge also found that she was not driving at an excessive speed. And several other drivers at or near the scene testified that they, too, had experienced difficulties controlling their cars due to the slippery road conditions.”

Lawyers for the city have two weeks to file a response to the ruling released Friday.