It’s well known that failing to stop at the scene of an accident that one has caused is an offence under the Canadian Criminal Code. But can you be convicted under this section of the Code if you claim that the collision or incident involving the vehicle was not an accident, but in fact intentional? That was the question put forth recently to the Newfoundland Court of Appeal in the case of R. v. Reid where the issues of what constitutes an “accident” in a criminal law context, and in particular, for “hit and run” cases, were discussed.

Accused Intentionally Assaulted Victim With Car

In this case, the accused, Mr. Reid and the victim, Mr. Mulcahy had been spending a couple of days drinking alcohol at the house of a mutual friend of theirs, Ms. Avery. At some point on the second day, matters got somewhat heated and Reid was asked to leave. Reid didn’t take kindly to this request as it was just after midnight, he drove back to Ms. Avery’s house, making as much noise as possible with his car by honking his horn, blasting loud music and shining his car headlights through Ms. Avery’s living room window. He then parked his car and bellowed a verbal challenge consisting of “Come on! Let’s go!” at the top of his lungs. Mulcahy responded by emerging from the house with a shovel in his hand while walking towards Reid seated in his vehicle. Reid promptly rammed his vehicle into Mulcahy not once but twice, and then drove off. Mulcahy suffered numerous injuries, including a broken foot, torn ligaments and a number of other cuts and bruises.

At trial, Reid was convicted of assault with a weapon, dangerous driving causing bodily harm and failing to stop at the scene of an accident. He appealed the last of these three convictions on the grounds that his actions were in no way accidental but instead were intentional and deliberate.

Ordinary Meaning of “Accident”

Section 320.16(1) of the Criminal Code, previously Section 252(1) at the time the incidents in question took place, provides definitions of terms relating to driving, or conveyance, offences. Under this section, the term “accident” is not defined. The section simply states “Every person commits an offence who has the care, charge or control of a vehicle … that is involved in an accident with (a) another person… and with intent to escape civil or criminal liability fails to stop the vehicle”. Note that under the new version of this section, some of the language has changed, including replacing the term “vehicle” with “conveyance”.

On appeal, Reid’s argument was that absent a definition of “accident” for this particular cause, the ordinary meaning of the word must be applied. “Ordinary meaning” is a principle of legal statutory interpretation that holds when a word is not defined in a statute or other legal instrument, the Court should construe the term in accordance with its ordinary or natural meaning. He also cited numerous case law precedents which supported the argument that “accident” does not include something that arises from an intentional act, including when a vehicle is involved. In support of this, the accused cited the 1987 decision R. v. O’Brien which found that a deliberate act could not be considered an “accident” under the Code.

The Crown’s argument was that within the context of this section of the Code, “accident” contemplates any incident in which a person operates a vehicle so as to cause injury to another person or vehicle, and it includes intentional conduct on the part of the accused. They also were able to cite case law precedents supporting this argument, including cases where a vehicle is involved, such as R. v. Modeste. In that decision, the court considered the intention behind the section in the Code and found that the term “accident” could include intentional acts.

With legal precedents supporting both sides of the argument, what was the Court of Appeal to do?

Purpose of the Act and the Intention of Parliament

In order to break the case law precedent “deadlock” on whether an accident could be deemed to apply to something intentional, the Court looked at another aspect of statutory interpretation. Namely, the intention behind the legislators in creating the section of the Code which made leaving the scene of an “accident” a criminal offence.

The Court deemed that the language of the previous version of this clause (and the one that was in force at the time of the incident) did contemplate that an “accident” could include intentional acts. They indicated this was because the language of the clause also included the words “with intent to escape civil or criminal liability fails to stop the vehicle” and as such there could be “no possibility of intent to escape criminal liability unless the act was intentional”.

Secondly, they noted the purpose behind the section is to safeguard against the public harm of drivers leaving the scene without leaving a name, or without rendering assistance to an injured person. This objective is not altered or affected by whether or not someone was hit by a car accidentally or deliberately. As such, the appeal against this particular conviction was not allowed.

What this case demonstrates is that there can be legal precedents supporting more than one meaning or interpretation of a legal term. Furthermore, that it’s not always clear when the plain or ordinary meaning of a word will apply, even when the term is not legally defined in a piece of legislation such as the Criminal Code. What may seem like a straightforward meaning of a term may have a minefield of precedents supporting a certain meaning and at the same time may have numerous cases providing a different interpretation. Seeking expert legal advice to help you weave your way through such a minefield when an incident occurs is always recommended.

Contact Hicks Adams LLP in Toronto for Criminal Defence Against Failure to Remain Charges

Our criminal defence and appeal lawyers can advise on how best to protect your rights and defend you in court, including for alleged hit and run cases. We defend individuals charged with a variety of offences, including driving offences, assault, and homicides. Contact Hicks Adams LLP in downtown Toronto to discuss the options available to help you through this time. Call us at 416-975-1700 or contact us online to schedule a confidential consultation.