Chain Gang or Chain of Causation: Do injuries sustained in a purse snatching arise out of the ‘use and operation of a motor vehicle’?


This is the question the Court of Appeal addressed in the recent decision of Hannah v. I.C.B.C. 2010 BCCA 141 (“Hannah”). In Hannah, the Plaintiff was in a grocery store parking lot when a van pulled up beside her and the passenger reached out of the window to grab the Plaintiff’s purse strap. The van accelerated away and the acceleration caused the Plaintiff to be thrown backwards and dragged along the ground until her purse strap broke. Neither the driver nor the passenger in the van were identified.

The Plaintiff brought an action against I.C.B.C. under the unidentified motorist provisions of the Insurance (Motor Vehicle) Act which was in place at the time of the January 2003 incident (the “Act”) [the subsequent changes to this section by virtue of enactment of the Insurance (Vehicle) Act are minor and do not alter it’s substance].

I.C.B.C. brought an application to have the Plaintiff’s action dismissed arguing that her claim did not come within the unidentified motorist provisions of the Act which provided:

24 (1) If bodily injury to or the death of a person or damage to property arises out of the use or operation of a motor vehicle on a highway in British Columbia and

(a) the names of both the owner and the driver of the motor vehicle are not ascertainable, or

(b) the name of the driver is not ascertainable and the owner is not liable to an action for damages for the injury, death or property damage,

any person who has a cause of action

(c) as mentioned in paragraph (a), against the owner or the driver, or

(d) as mentioned in paragraph (b), against the driver,

in respect of the bodily injury, death or property damage may bring an action against the corporation as nominal defendant, either alone or as a defendant with others alleged to be responsible for the injury, death or property damage, but in an action in which the names of both the owner and the driver of the motor vehicle are not known or ascertainable, recovery for property damage is limited to the amount by which the damages exceed the prescribed amount.

I.C.B.C. advanced two arguments, both of which were ultimately rejected by the Court of Appeal:

  1. That the language of s. 24 above was confined to negligent accidents and not to intentional acts amounting to assault; and
  2. That the Plaintiff’s injuries did not arise out of the “use and operation of a motor vehicle” as defined in the Act.

In rejecting I.C.B.C.’s argument that the section was confined to negligent acts, Madam Justice Rowles writing for the majority noted that in the earlier decision of Chan v. I.C.B.C. (1996, BCCA) Mr. Justice Finch had held that both intentional and negligent acts could constitute a cause of action in a claim for damages arising out of the use or operation of a vehicle under. s. 24. She went onto hold that the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision of Citadel General Assurance v. Vytlingham 2007 SCC 46 provided support for Mr. Justice Finch’s reasoning and supported his conclusion that damages caused by an intentional or criminal act is not excluded from coverage.

With regards to the “use and operation” argument, Madam Justice Rowles commented that in Chan Mr. Justice Finch had applied to the issue of causation the broad interpretation given in Amos to the words “arises out of the ownership, use or operation … of a motor vehicle” when he held that:

[40] In my respectful view, that meaning of the phrase “arising out of” has now been firmly rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada in Amos [Amos v. Insurance Corp. of British Columbia, [1995] 3 S.C.R. 405], in favour of a much less restrictive meaning, a meaning which requires only some connection between the injury and the use or operation of the vehicle or that the use or operation of the vehicle contribute to or add to the injury….

Madam Justice Rowles went onto hold that Citadel had overruled Chan and cited Mr. Justice Binnie’s observations at paragraph 9 that:

Some of what is said in Amos is helpful to relate the claimants’ injuries to the “use or operation of a motor vehicle”, but Amos is not a template to resolve indemnity coverage, i.e., the “motorist” issue, because the type of insurance and the coverage requirements in Amos did not require the presence of an at-fault motorist. [emphasis in original]

As such, she held that:

[24] … in an action brought under the unidentified motorist provision, such as the one before us, the requirement referred to in Citadel for an “at-fault motorist” makes clear that the words “arising out of” must be taken to mean “caused by” and, further, that the vehicle must be implicated in a manner that is more than merely incidental or fortuitous: Citadel at para. 29.

Here the facts were that the driver’s acceleration of the van while the passenger had a hold of the Plaintiff’s purse was what caused the Plaintiff to fall and be dragged by the van as it accelerated away. As such, Madam Justice Rowles held that this “is a case in which there is a continuous chain of causation stretching between the use of the motor vehicle on the one hand and the injuries sustained by the plaintiff on the other.” [para. 39]

Hannah provides clarification of the test to be applied in determining whether, for the purpose of unidentified motorists coverage, an injury arises out of the use or operation of a vehicle. Following Hannah, the broad interpretation found in Amos is not applicable and rather there must be an unbroken chain of causation between the use of a vehicle and that if a vehicle’s involvement is held to be no more than incidental or fortuitous or “but for”, and is ruled severable from the real cause of the loss, then the necessary causal link will not be established.