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PHYSICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL INJURIES - Psychological injuries - Cognitive impairment - Personality change - Arising subsequent to incident

Friday, June 02, 2017 @ 1:02 PM  

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Appeal from a judgment of the British Columbia Court of Appeal setting aside a decision awarding to Saadati $100,000 in non-pecuniary damages for a psychological injury arising out of a motor vehicle accident. In July 2005, Saadati’s tractor-truck was struck by a vehicle driven by Moorhead. Saadati appeared at the time to have been uninjured. This accident was the second in a series of five motor vehicle collisions involving Saadati between January 2003 and March 2009, inclusive. Saadati had suffered chronic pain since the first accident, which was later aggravated by the third accident. In 2007, Saadati commenced an action in negligence against Moorhead and the other respondents. The respondents collectively admitted liability for the accident, but took the position that no damage had been suffered. The trial judge concluded that Saadati had not demonstrated any physical injury, but found that the accident had caused him “psychological injuries, including personality change and cognitive difficulties”. This conclusion was based upon the testimony of friends and family to the effect that, after the accident, Saadati’s personality had changed for the worse. The trial judge awarded Saadati $100,000 for non-pecuniary damages. The British Columbia Court of Appeal set aside the award after it concluded that Saadati had not proven a medically recognized psychiatric or psychological illness or condition through expert medical opinion evidence. The Court of Appeal also observed that, in awarding damages for mental injury, the trial judge had erred by deciding the case on the basis of a claim that had not been pleaded or argued by Saadati.

HELD: Appeal allowed. There was no breach of procedural fairness. The many allegations of “psychological”, “emotional” or “psychiatric” reactions to the accident appearing in Saadati’s submissions, combined with the broad heads of damage alleged in the pleadings, provided ample notice to the respondents of the case which they had to answer. Canadian negligence law recognized that a duty existed at common law to take reasonable care to avoid causing foreseeable mental injury. The elements of the cause of action of negligence furnished principled and sufficient barriers to unmeritorious or trivial claims for negligently caused mental injury. The view that courts should require something more was founded not on legal principle, but on policy based upon dubious perceptions of psychiatry and mental illness. While relevant expert evidence was often helpful in determining whether the claimant had proven a mental injury, it was not required as a matter of law. Downloading the task of assessing legally recoverable mental injury to diagnostic tools like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) imported an arbitrary control mechanism upon recovery for mental injury. Where a psychiatric diagnosis was unavailable, it remained open to a trier of fact to find on other evidence adduced by the claimant that the occurrence of mental injury had been proven on a balance of probabilities. Claimants alleging mental injury were not required to show that such injury had manifested itself to an expert in psychiatry in the form of a clinically diagnosed, recognizable psychiatric illness. The trial judge’s findings that the accident had caused Saadati serious and prolonged disruption that transcended ordinary emotional upset or distress had not been challenged. There was no legal error in the trial judge’s treatment of the evidence of Saadati’s symptoms as supporting a finding of mental injury. His award was restored. Without full submissions and a pertinent lower court record, this was not an appropriate circumstance to decide the effect of workers’ compensation legislation on the divisibility of injuries. The passage of time since the acknowledged wrong against Saadati and the commencement of these proceedings militated against the remand sought by the respondents to have lower courts address the issue of the quantum of the award.

Saadati v. Moorhead, [2017] S.C.J. No. 28, Supreme Court of Canada, B. McLachlin C.J. and R.S. Abella, M.J. Moldaver, A. Karakatsanis, R. Wagner, C. Gascon, S. Côté, R. Brown and M. Rowe JJ, June 2, 2017. Digest No. TLD-May292017012SCC