Using the “Transmission of Force” Principle in MVA Claims

A recent Ontario pedestrian-accident case highlights an important legal concept that is fundamental to resolving insurance claims.

It is the “transmission of force” principle, which in multi-car accidents helps isolate the vehicle that is legally adjudged to be the root cause of the accident, and can apply to a stationary vehicle that is hit by a moving one, or to two or more moving vehicles.  By extension, the principle plays a key part in determining which of several insurers may be liable to pay for personal injury damages that may have arisen in the accident.

The proper application of this “transmission of force” principle was the focus of a case called Unifund Assurance Co. v. ACE INA Insurance Co., where the legal contest was between two insurers, Unifund and ACE, stemming from an accident involving two cars and a pedestrian.

The Unifund-insured vehicle had struck an ACE-insured car, which in turn struck the pedestrian.  After the initial impact, the two cars had been propelled in different directions, but only the ACE-insured car came into contact with the pedestrian, who suffered injuries.  The pedestrian claimed for accident benefits, which gave rise to the question of which vehicle had actually “struck” the pedestrian, within the wording of the relevant insurance policies.   It was either the Unifund-insured vehicle, which had propelled the ACE-insured one into the pedestrian, or else the ACE-insured car, which actually injured him.

After hearing the evidence and applying the “transmission of force” principle, an arbitrator ruled that Unifund should be liable for the injured pedestrian’s accident benefits, since its collision with the ACE-insured vehicle was what ultimately caused that latter car to strike and injure the pedestrian.

Unifund successfully appealed.   The court agreed that the arbitrator had been wrong to have applied the “transmission of force” principle to impose liability on Unifund in these circumstances.

Based on the agreed facts that had been filed by both insurers, there was insufficient evidence that the collision between the ACE-insured vehicle and the Unifund-insured one would not have occurred if it were not for the actions of the Unifund-insured driver.    In other words, the force that propelled the ACE-insured car to strike the pedestrian had not come from the Unifund-insured vehicle; rather, it was an “independent force” that either came from the ACE-insured car’s own — admittedly diverted — movement, or else derived from the actions of the driver.

The court set aside the arbitrator’s decision, and ordered ACE to pay the pedestrian’s accident benefits pursuant to the policy.