Canadian Underwriter

How this statutory benefits ruling hinged on the word “the”

November 5, 2019   by Jason Contant

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Saskatchewan’s highest court has ruled in favour of the province’s government auto insurer in a case involving statutory death benefits paid collectively to three dependant children.

The Court of Appeal for Saskatchewan’s ruling in Johnson v Saskatchewan Government Insurance, released last week, revolved around the interpretation of the province’s Automobile Accident Insurance Act (AIAA); in particular, the word “the” contained in s. 145(3) of the act.

The province’s top court ultimately dismissed the appeal from the three dependent children, who argued that each were entitled to $66,000 in death benefits, as opposed to all three of them being collectively entitled to about $66,000. The court rejected the claimants’ arguments, which turned on how to interpret the word “the” in the act, and found that SGI correctly allocated collective benefits to the children.

Plaintiffs Christine Johnson, Sherry Ross and Brennan Roberts, all under the ages of 21, were the children of Garry Johnson, who died in a motor vehicle accident on Aug. 9, 2014. They argued a Court of Queen’s Bench judge erred in his interpretation of AAIA and its regulations. Specifically, they emphasized that s. 145(3) refers to “the dependent” being entitled to receive the death benefit mentioned in s. 144 as if “the dependant were the surviving spouse of the insured.”

The plaintiffs submitted this means they are each entitled to the minimum benefit of $66,696. SGI said they were collectively entitled to a single surviving spouse benefit, as Johnson had no surviving spouse.

The Court of Queen’s Bench upheld SGI’s position. In dismissing the application to overturn the Queen’s Bench decision, Chief Justice Robert Richards of the appeal court referenced the Supreme Court of Canada decision Rizzo & Rizzo Shoes Ltd. (Re). Canada’s top court ruled that the words of an act “are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of Parliament.”

S. 145(3) of AAIA states: “If, at the date of the accident, the surviving parent of the insured’s dependant is not entitled to the weekly death benefit set out in subsection 144(1), the dependant is entitled to the death benefit mentioned in section 144 as if the dependant were the surviving spouse of the insured.”

While that language does create some ambiguity, Richards wrote in the Saskatchewan appeal court decision, any ambiguity caused by the use of the word “the” is resolved by s. 145(6). This latter section provides that death benefits are to be paid “in the prescribed manner” when there is more than one dependant.

“As a result, s. 145(6) necessarily signals that, when there is more than one dependant, each of them is entitled to something other than the full amount of the death benefit,” Richards wrote. “That is so because, if each dependant was entitled to the full amount of the benefit, there would be no reason to include s. 145(6) in the AAIA. Each dependant would claim and be paid a death benefit in the same manner as if there was only one dependant. Thus, notwithstanding how s. 145(3) is worded, s. 145 as a whole can only reasonably be taken to mean that, when there are multiple dependants, they will share a single spousal death benefit.”

Richards said that although he takes a “somewhat different view of the AAIA than did the Queen’s Bench judge, I see no sustainable merit” in the plaintiff’s argument.

In the Queen’s Bench decision, the judge also referenced a section of The Interpretation Act (now repealed) that said “[w]ords in an enactment in the singular include the plural and words in the plural include the singular.” So, reference to “the dependant” being entitled to the death benefit must be read as meaning that “the dependants” collectively were entitled to a single benefit, he said.

“In the end, therefore, the Queen’s Bench judge found he could not accept the [plaintiff’s] arguments and concluded that SGI had properly determined the extent of their benefits,” Richards concluded.

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