A unanimous decision of the Supreme Court released on June 2, 2017, filled a void in tort law when the Court stated that proof of a recognized psychiatric injury is no longer a precondition for the award of damages for mental injuries caused by negligence. Previously, it was common for courts to dismiss a claim for compensation for a mental injury caused by negligence when a party was unable to demonstrate the existence of a recognized psychiatric injury. This is no longer a hurdle that parties must face. In Saadati v. Moorhead, 2017 SCC 28, the Supreme Court ruled that to establish a mental injury, claimants must show evidence of a serious and prolonged disturbance that rises above ordinary annoyances, anxieties and fears.

Background

The case came to the Supreme Court after making its way through the Supreme Court of British Columbia and the British Columbia Court of Appeal.

From 2003 to 2009, Mr. Saadati, the appellant, was involved in five motor vehicle accidents, sustaining various injuries. He was declared mentally incompetent in 2010. The matter at hand dealt with the injuries Mr. Saadati sustained after the second accident on July 5, 2005 when his tractor-truck was hit by a Hummer driven by the respondent, Mr. Moorhead. In this case, Mr. Saadati sought non-pecuniary damages and past wage loss. The respondent admitted liability for the accident, but opposed the claim for damages.

The Lower Courts

Mr. Saadati was unavailable to testify at trial. The trial judge rejected the claim for physical injury arising from the accident and found that the evidence from his expert psychologist was not enough to establish a psychological injury. However, the judge found that the testimony of Mr. Saadati’s family and friends was sufficient proof of psychological injury which included a personality change and cognitive difficulties. Consequently, the judge awarded $100,000 for non-pecuniary damages.

The trial judge’s decision was overturned by the British Columbia Court of Appeal. The Court allowed the appeal because Mr. Saadati had not demonstrated a medically recognized psychiatric or psychological injury to support the award of non-pecuniary damages.

The Supreme Court of Canada

In reversing the BC Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court of Canada explained that the recovery for mental injury in negligence depends on the proof of the existence of five cumulative criteria: a duty of care, a breach of that duty, damage, and both a legal and a factual causal relationship. However, there is no requirement to prove that a specific recognized mental illness was sustained by the claimant. What is needed to establish mental injury is a serious and prolonged disturbance that rises above ordinary annoyances, anxieties and fears. The occurrence of the mental injury needs to be proven on a balance of probabilities and is open to rebuttal by expert evidence brought by the defendant. The Court stressed that the important factors are the symptoms and their effect, not the diagnosis. It further stated that there is no necessary relationship between reasonably foreseeable mental injury and a diagnostic classification scheme. All that is needed is proof that the defendant could have foreseen the injury, not a particular psychiatric illness.

In the Court’s view, the law of negligence must afford equal protections to victims of mental injuries and physical injuries. If a claimant alleges physical injury, he does not have to prove that his condition meets the threshold of a recognizable physical illness; imposing that requirement on claimants who allege mental injury would result in unequal protection. Justice Brown stated that “the suspicion which originally impelled [the bar to recovery for mental injury] persisted, and common law courts [continue] to impose conditions upon recovery beyond those applied to claims for negligently caused physical injury” [para 15]. Justice Brown explained that if tort law does not afford identical treatment to mental and physical injuries, then Canadian law would perpetuate a dubious perception of psychiatry and mental illness.

In response to the argument that mental illnesses are subjective and easily exaggerated and that the law should not provide compensation for “trivial matters”, the Court concluded that the elements of the cause of action of negligence are sufficient barriers to unmeritorious claims [para 21].

Conclusion

This decision will have a significant impact on future cases dealing with compensation for mental injuries. This recent decision of the Supreme Court fills a void in tort law and seeks to put mental and physical injuries on an equal footing. Claimants seeking compensation for mental injuries no longer face additional obstacles. In the absence of a diagnosis of a specific mental illness caused by the defendant’s negligence, a claimant can nonetheless be awarded damages if they show a serious and prolonged disturbance that rises above ordinary annoyances, anxieties and fears.

This article was prepared with the assistance of Manon Arbour, a summer law student in Gowling WLG’s Ottawa office.