A Deer’s Tale, or the Liability of Police Attending an Emergency

  • Market Insight 23 February 2024 23 February 2024
  • North America

  • Dispute Resolution

In Denhoed v. Griffiths, 2023 ABKB 557, the Court of King’s Bench of Alberta considered the liability of a police officer for parking his cruiser on the side of a highway responding to an emergency situation.

In Denhoed v. Griffiths, 2023 ABKB 557, the Court of King’s Bench of Alberta considered the liability of a police officer for parking his cruiser on the side of a highway responding to an emergency situation.

Following a summary trial, the Court dismissed a claim against the constable and the police department.

This action arose from two motor vehicle collisions occurring on an evening in April 2018. In the first incident, the Plaintiff’s vehicle collided with a deer and subsequently stopped her car on the right shoulder of the highway.

Police were called to the scene of the deer collision. A police officer attended the scene in his cruiser with emergency lights flashing. The officer parked his cruiser on the shoulder, partially encroaching into the right lane of the highway by about half a metre.

The officer requested that the Plaintiff provide a statement and invited her to do so in the cruiser to which the Plaintiff agreed. While the statement was being taken, the cruiser was hit on the right rear corner by a 1995 GMC Sierra.

The Plaintiff commenced a personal injury claim, alleging that she experienced injuries in the second collision, that such injuries were caused or contributed to by the negligence of the Police. The Plaintiff alleged that there were several breaches including:

  1. The manner in which the cruiser was parked on the highway;
  2. Taking the Plaintiff’s statement in the cruiser, as parked on the highway as opposed to some other location; and
  3. The blinding effect of the emergency lights oncoming traffic.

At trial, the Defendants admitted that a duty of care was owed to the Plaintiff during the response and investigation of the deer collision. However, the Defendants denied any breaches of the applicable standard of care.

The Court noted the standard of care of a police officer exercising his duties is that of a “reasonable officer in similar circumstances.”  While the Plaintiff did not present any expert evidence on the standard of care, The Court concluded that she was able to determine “…the standard of care with respect to the manner of parking and the use of the emergency lights because there is ample evidence with respect to statutory requirements and [internal police] policy, and an assessment of the utility of the police conduct, seriousness of any threatened harm and foreseeability of risk can be determined as a matter of common understanding on the evidentiary record.”

The Court completed an overview of the regulatory framework for parking vehicles along a highway. The Use of the Highway and Rules of the Road Regulation limits how vehicles may be parked in a highway outside of an urban area. In circumstances where a vehicle has to be parked on a roadway, a person may only do so if there is both “a clear and unobstructed space opposite the vehicle for free passage of vehicles on the roadway” and “a clear view of the parked vehicle for a distance of 60 metres in both directions.”

The police submitted evidence of their training protocols for traffic stops. The protocols directed officers on how to initiate safe traffic stops. In particular, the protocols required an officer to maintain control over the scene, the stopped vehicle, and the interaction with parties at the scene. The protocols further recommend the police vehicle be positioned 10-15 meters behind the subject vehicle and partially intruding into the adjacent lane to limit traffic in that lane and provide adequate room for the officer to work. It was accepted by the Court that the purpose of the protocols was to force oncoming traffic to slow or move out of the lane where the officer was parked, and create a buffer zone for officers to work, and reducing the likelihood of harm to anyone else at the scene.

The Defendants presented expert evidence with respect to the location of the cruiser at the time of the second collision, and the visibility of the cruiser’s emergency lights to oncoming drivers.

The Court concluded that a reasonable motorist, driving with due care and attention, should have observed the emergency lights on the cruiser on the highway at a minimal distance of 300 to 400 metres, slowed his speed, and responded to the emergency ahead.

The Court concluded that officer parked the cruiser in a manner consistent with the requirements of the regulations, the internal police protocols and his training in relation to safe traffic stops. The Court found that the cruiser partially encroaching into the right lane of the highway had left a clear and unobstructed space opposite for free passage of vehicles on the roadway. The cruiser had its emergency lights on at all times, which made it visible beyond the 60 metres required by the regulations.

With respect to visibility, the Court considered evidence in the police file which noted that a second officer called to the scene was able to observe the cruiser lights approximately 1 kilometre away from the scene. This was consistent with the visibility estimates from the experts.

With respect to the liability of the Sierra driver, he was convicted of careless driving. The Traffic Safety Act imposed a reverse onus on that driver to show on a balance of probabilities that the loss of damage alleged did not arise from the contravention of the Act. On review of the evidence, the Court concluded that the Sierra driver could not overcome the reverse onus as his own expert concluded that if he was approaching the scene on the highway with an unobstructed view, he should have observed the cruiser 1 kilometre east of the scene and would have had 36 seconds to react. At a minimum, the Sierra driver should have observed emergency lights a distance of 300-400 metres, which would still have given him time to slow down and react.

The Court concluded that the sole cause of the second Collision was the Sierra driver’s negligence, and that there was no breach of the police’s standard of care.


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