In the recent Supreme Court decision in Saadati v Moorhead (Saadati), the Plaintiff suffered a mental injury arising from the third out of five motor vehicle accidents that led to an undiagnosed personality change. Although Plaintiff’s doctors confirmed the mental injury, the Plaintiff never received a formal diagnosis. The Defence did not dispute the accident occurred or the fact the Plaintiff suffered a mental injury. The Defence’s argument was that an undiagnosed mental injury was not compensable at law.
The Supreme Court’s decision sought to answer a seemingly straightforward legal question: what is a compensable mental injury? The British Columbia Court of Appeal, following a line of precedent, stated that a compensable mental injury is only one that can be diagnosed. In essence, the court will only award Plaintiff damages where an expert physician can pinpoint a plaintiff’s illness from a chart of previously discovered illnesses.
Before striking down this legal framework, the Supreme Court of Canada undertook an analysis of the historical principles of negligence and mental harm. The Court reiterated the following four-step framework that a Plaintiff must meet before the Court will assess damages for mental harm caused by negligence:
1. The Defendant owed the Plaintiff a duty of care;
2. The Defendant breached the standard of care required;
3. The Defendant factually caused the injury; and
4. The Plaintiff’s injuries are not too remote from the actions or inactions of the Defendant.
While the first three criterions are treated similarly whether the Plaintiff alleges a mental or physical injury, the fourth criteria has been receiving significantly more attention within recent mental injury claims.
In 2008, the Supreme Court of Canada released their decision of Mustapha v Culligan of Canada Ltd. (Mustapha). This decision marked a shift in how Courts assess liability in negligence claims where a Plaintiff alleges they have suffered mental harm. The Court held that a Plaintiff must prove on a balance of probabilities that it is foreseeable that a person of ordinary fortitude would suffer a serious injury from the same actions of the Defendant. Even though Mustapha lost the legal battle on the fourth criteria, the Court never acknowledged a formal diagnosis requirement.
In Saadati, the Supreme Court held that to require a formal diagnosis established through expert evidence would unfairly prejudice meritorious claims. Although expert evidence establishing the Plaintiff has suffered a mental injury is an important aspect of the fact-finding process, it has never been a formal requirement in meeting the negligence test. To include such a requirement would make the legal test a question of science, not law.
Written by Nicholas Baxter, articling student.