The Supreme Court of Canada recently considered whether an individual can be impaired by reason of distracted driving in R. v. Suter. While the primary issue was the appropriate length of sentence for the criminal conviction, it also dealt with the concept of being impaired by distraction.
The facts of the case were tragic. Mr. Suter fatally injured a two year old when he drove his vehicle onto a restaurant patio. Following the incident, the accused was charged with impaired driving causing death, impaired driving causing bodily harm and refusing to provide a breath sample after causing an accident resulting in a death. Complicating the situation was the fact that sometime after the accident, Mr. Suter was attacked by a group of vigilantes who kidnapped him, beat him and cut off his thumb using a set of pruning shears.
In the moments leading up to the accident, the accused and his wife got into a fight in the parking lot in front of the restaurant patio. During this fight, his wife exclaimed “Maybe we should just get a divorce.” At about the same moment, the wife realized that the vehicle was inching forward and she yelled at the accused to stop. Unfortunately, Mr. Sutter’s foot had come off the brake pedal. Instead of hitting the brake, he pressed down on the gas pedal which caused the vehicle to launch forward onto the patio where he struck the child. Following this, Mr. Suter was pulled from the vehicle, thrown to the ground and beaten by witnesses at the scene. He was arrested, taken to the police station and a breath demand was made. It was after speaking with a lawyer to obtain legal advice that he ultimately refused to provide the breath sample.
The Supreme Court of Canada noted that the circumstances were unique as the reason the accused refused to provide the police with a breath sample was because he was given bad legal advice which he followed. The impaired driving charges were ultimately withdrawn when the accused plead guilty to one count of refusing to provide a breath sample.
The Court of Appeal of Alberta found that the sentencing Judge made several errors in his decision. One of these errors was that the sentencing Judge failed to consider the fact that the accused “cho[se] to drive while distracted in the context of his health and pre-existing alcohol problems.” The Court of Appeal found that this was an aggravating factor.
The Supreme Court of Canada was critical of the Court of Appeal for engaging in their own interpretation of the evidence by concluding that what happened was more than just a momentary driving error. Although it was accepted that the accused was not impaired by alcohol, the Court of Appeal concluded that the accused’s ability to drive was “knowingly impaired by health and other factors.” Specifically, the Court of Appeal concluded that the accused’s ability to drive was “impaired by the distraction offered by his argument with his wife, in the context of [his] health and drinking problems.”
The Supreme Court of Canada held that the concept of “impaired by distraction” was “both novel and confusing” and would not endorse it. The Supreme Court of Canada found that the Court of Appeal did so primarily to circumvent the lower Court’s finding that the accident was a result of a non-impaired driving error. The Supreme Court of Canada noted that in describing the circumstances of the accident, the Court of Appeal focused on the fact that the accused chose to drive (1) in a busy parking lot; (2) while angry and distracted; and (3) in the context of pre-existing martial/health/alcohol problems.
The Supreme Court concluded that the Court of Appeal:
[I]mproperly recast the accident as one caused by health and alcohol problems, anger, and distraction. It reweighed the evidence and looked to external factors that had no bearing on the gravity of the offence for which Mr. Suter was charged, nor on Mr. Suter’s level of moral blameworthiness.
The Supreme Court of Canada found that this was an error in principle that resulted in the imposition of an unfit sentence.
While impaired by distraction may not be sufficient for a criminal conviction, an individual’s state of mind while behind the wheel continues to play a significant role in motor vehicle tort claims. The standard to prove negligence is lower than the criminal burden of proof. Although the Supreme Court of Canada may not have been willing to assign criminal fault in these circumstances, the reasonableness of a driver’s actions in a similar civil setting is still fair game.
See R. v. Suter, 2018 SCC 34 (CanLII)