Employer not responsible for car crash

Alberta man left paralyzed in accident after working 19-hour shift, going out and drinking beer with friends

A man who worked a 19-hour shift, went drinking with a friend and then crashed his car had his claim for damages against his employer thrown out by an Alberta court.

James Gartner, 39, worked in rural Alberta. In addition to his regular day job, he worked Saturdays for Camrose Auctions.

The workday was hard and the hours long, as it was expected that an auction would continue until all the livestock had been sold.

On Sept. 26, 1998, Gartner worked what the court described as “an amazing 19 hard and grueling hours.” He finished at 2 a.m. and drove home with two friends. He drank several light beers along the way. When they passed close to Gartner’s home, he declined being dropped off and went to one his friend’s houses.

At the friend’s house they shared more beer. All told they probably drank a case of 24 light beers, the court ruled. Gartner declined an invitation to stay overnight and drove home around 4 a.m.

At some point he fell asleep behind the wheel and was involved in a serious one-vehicle accident. The crash left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair.

Gartner launched a lawsuit against the auction company, alleging it had a duty not to have him work for so many hours, and this was a breach of the province’s Employment Standards Code. This caused him to suffer fatigue and the company was, therefore, responsible for the accident and his injuries, he said.

The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench agreed the company was in breach of the code, which mandated that an employee not work more than 12 hours in any one workday. Exceptions are made for urgent, unforeseen or unpreventable circumstances, and for entire industries who apply for them, but that was not the case here, it said.

But simply breaching the code is not by itself negligence. Asking an employee to work who is willing to do so is not negligence unless there are other factors known to the employer that create a risk of danger.

In this case, the company had not knowingly put an employee or the public at risk. Gartner was known to be a hard worker who had handled long shifts in the past. He did not drink while on the job and when he left for the night was a passenger in his own vehicle.

More important was what happened between Gartner’s leaving work and the time of the accident. He started drinking while on the way home and then spent almost two hours with his friends, where he continued to drink.

The intervening period makes it impossible to hold the auction company responsible for the accident which happened later, the court said. There was no causal connection between the conduct of Camrose Auctions and the accident, as the chain of connection was broken by Gartner’s conduct after leaving work.

The court expressed sympathy for Gartner, but ruled his injuries were caused solely by his own decisions and dismissed his claim.

What the court might have awarded

The court clearly found no negligence on the part of Camrose Auction and that Gartner was responsible for the accident.

However, had the court found an element of negligence and causation on the part of Camrose Auction, it would have found Gartner to have been 90 per cent liable and the employer 10 per cent.

For more information see:

Gartner v. 520631 Alberta Ltd., 2005 CarswellAlta 244, 2005 ABQB 120 (Alta. Q.B.)

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