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Supreme Court of Canada bars lawsuits against hospital, police by auto accident victims compensated by SAAQ


March 27, 2017   by Canadian Underwriter


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An auto accident victim who is compensated by Quebec’s public automobile insurance plan cannot sue a third party for an “aggravated” or “separate” aspect of the injury, provided there is a “plausible, logical and sufficiently close link” between the accident and the subsequent events, the Supreme Court of Canada suggested in a ruling released Friday.

In its divided ruling in Godbout v. Pagé, Canada’s highest court upheld the Quebec Court of Appeal’s decision, against two auto accident victims, in two separate cases.

In January, 1999, Thérèse Godbout was seriously injured in an accident and treated at Hôpital du Sacré-Cœur de Montréal. Court records indicate she had developed advanced compartment syndrome and muscle compartment necrosis and had both legs amputated at the knees.

She tried to sue orthopaedic surgery professionals as well as the hospital after an operation.

In 2013, a judge with Quebec’s superior court ruled that Godbout could sue the medical professionals over allegations that had “committed faults in diagnosis and in medical treatment and follow-up,” provided that a court concludes that “the defendants committed a medical fault while the plaintiff was hospitalized subsequently to the automobile accident and that that medical fault caused separate injuries.”

Godbout had been compensated by the public auto insurance plan, administered by Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ).

Section 83.57 of Quebec’s Insurance Act states: “Compensation under this title stands in lieu of all rights and remedies by reason of bodily injury and no action in that respect shall be admitted before any court of justice.”

The finding that Godbout could proceed with a civil suit against the hospital and medical professionals was overturned on appeal. Madam Justice Marie St-Pierre of the Quebec Court of Appeal wrote that the Superior Court “erred in applying the intervening cause (‘novus actus interveniens’) doctrine to hold that s. 83.57 of the Act did not apply,” to Godbout’s claim against the hospital and medical staff, Mr. Justice Richard Wagner of the Supreme Court of Canada wrote. Justice St-Pierre “explained that the conditions for applying that doctrine were not met even though the alleged facts were assumed to be true,” added Justice Wagner, who wrote the English version of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling on behalf of the majority. The Quebec Court of Appeal noted that the intervening cause doctrine “applies only if two essential criteria are met _ (1) a total break in the chain of causation and (2) the establishment of a new chain based on an act that is not directly related to the initial fault,” Justice Wagner noted.

The other case before the Supreme Court of Canada arose from an accident in which Gilles Gargantiel was injured. He wanted to sue the Attorney General of Quebec alleging negligence on the part of officers of the Sûreté du Québec.

In October, 2009, Gargantiel “lost control of his automobile and was then lying unconscious in a ditch between the road and a railway track,” Justice Wagner wrote. Court records indicate that the OnStar system from Gargantiel’s vehicle relayed the location of Gargantiel’s vehicle to the Sûreté du Québec but the officers were unable to locate the vehicle. Gargantiel was found, about 40 hours after the accident, by railway workers.

“Part of his right leg had to be amputated as a result of frostbite,” Justice Wagner wrote. “Following the accident, he received compensation from the SAAQ for the whole of his bodily injury. He nonetheless claimed damages from the Attorney General of Quebec for injuries linked to the negligence of the SQ officers who had participated in the search for his car, namely the partial amputation of his right leg and the resulting physical and psychological damage.”

A judge with the Quebec Superior Court ruled against Gargantiel, finding that the SAAQ insurance scheme “operates exclusively, even where a separate fault can be attributed to a third party.”

That ruling was also upheld by Quebec’s appeal court. Gargantiel appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In both Gargantiel’s and Godbout’s cases, their injuries “originated in a series of events that have a plausible, logical and sufficiently close link to one another and have, in each case, the automobile accident as their starting point,” Justice Wagner of the Supreme Court of Canada wrote.

The link between their injuries was “plausible, logical and sufficiently close” for them to receive compensation from SAAQ for the “whole” of their injuries, the Supreme Court of Canada found.

Among the cases cited were Westmount (City) v. Rossy, released June 22, 2012 by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Richard Rossy was killed in August, 2006 when a tree fell on the vehicle he was in. His family filed a lawsuit against the City of Westmount, Quebec. A Quebec Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit. That decision was overturned by Quebec’s appeal court but restored by the Supreme Court of Canada.

“At a minimum, an accident arising out of the use of a vehicle as a means of transportation will fall within the definition of ‘accident'” in Quebec’s automobile insurance act, Mr. Justice Louis Lebel wrote in Rossy. Such an accident “will therefore be ‘caused by an automobile’ within the meaning of the Act,” Justice Lebel added. “Any civil action in connection with the damage caused by that accident will be barred and victims will have to file a claim with the SAAQ. The vehicle’s role in the accident need not be an active one. The mere use or operation of the vehicle, as a vehicle, will be sufficient for the Act to apply.”

The no-fault insurance scheme, introduced in 1978, “was primarily designed to provide compensation to victims of automobile accidents for death and injury to the person, without regard to fault,” Justice Lebel wrote in Rossy. The act must “be given a ‘large and liberal’ interpretation to ensure that its purpose is attained,” Justice Lebel added. In Rossy, the Supreme Court of Canada cited the 1992 decision of the Quebec Court of Appeal in Productions Pram inc. v. Lemay.

The language of Insurance Act, “when interpreted in light of the context in which it was enacted, the legislative intent and the principles from Pram and Rossy, ultimately leads to the conclusion that, provided that there is a plausible, logical and sufficiently close link between, on the one hand, the automobile accident and the subsequent events (in the context of these appeals, the fault of a third party) and, on the other hand, the resulting injury, the Act will cover the whole of the injury,” Justice Wagner wrote in Godbout. “Thus, the fact that the injury in question has an ‘aggravated’ or ‘separate’ aspect that can be attributed to events that occurred subsequently to the automobile accident is immaterial: those events will be deemed to be part of the accident, and therefore of the cause of the whole of the injury.”

Concurring with Justice Wagner were Chief Justice of Canada Beverly McLachlin, as well as Justices Rosalie Silberman Abella, Andromache Karakatsanis, Clément Gascon and Russell Brown.

Dissenting was Madam Justice Suzanne Côté, who ruled that it was not open to Quebec’s appeal court “to determine whether the alleged injuries in these cases were aggravated, as opposed to separate, injuries.”