A unanimous decision of the Supreme Court in Saadati v. Moorhead1 released on June 2, 2017, clarified the law on the requirements for proof of mental injury in tort cases. The Court found that proof of a “recognized psychiatric injury” is no longer a precondition for an award of damages for mental injury. Rather, the Court restated and clarified the test it set out in its earlier decision of Mustapha v. Culligan2 requiring that to establish a mental injury, claimants must demonstrate 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 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 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.

Conclusion

This decision will have a significant impact on future cases dealing with compensation for mental injuries. Claimants seeking compensation for mental injuries may do so in the absence of expert medical evidence, and without establishing a diagnosis of a specific mental illness caused by the defendant’s negligence. A claimant must show a serious and prolonged disturbance that rises above ordinary annoyances, anxieties and fears.