Godbout v. Pagé, 2017 SCC 18 – Insurance — Automobile insurance — Bodily injury

On appeal from a judgment of the Quebec Court of Appeal (2015 QCCA 225) setting aside a decision of Roy J. (2013 QCCS 4866).

TG and GG were seriously injured in automobile accidents. Insofar as the alleged facts are assumed to be true, they subsequently suffered additional injuries because of faults attributable to third parties. These third parties were, in TG’s case, the medical staff who treated the injuries she had suffered in the accident and, in GG’s case, Sûreté du Québec officers who were allegedly negligent in searching for the crashed vehicle he was in. TG and GG have since been compensated for the whole of their injuries by the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (“SAAQ”) under the Automobile Insurance Act (“Act”). However, they are seeking to bring actions in damages against the third parties in question for subsequent faults that caused them aggravated or separate bodily injury.

In the case of the appeal concerning TG, the parties jointly submitted to the Superior Court the question whether s. 83.57 of the Act has the effect of barring any civil action against a third party in respect of a fault that was committed subsequently to an automobile accident and that caused a separate injury. The Superior Court found that such an action was admissible provided that the existence of a separate fault and a separate injury could be proved. The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and set aside the Superior Court’s decision on the basis that s. 83.57 barred a civil action against the third parties in question.

In the case of the appeal concerning GG, the third parties in question asked for the dismissal of the action under art. 165(4) of the former Code of Civil Procedure. The Superior Court granted the motion and dismissed the action on the basis that the prohibition against civil actions set out in s. 83.57 of the Act applied. In a decision rendered the same day as its decision concerning TG, the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal and affirmed the Superior Court’s decision.

Held (6-1): The appeals should be dismissed.

Per McLachlin C.J. and Abella, Karakatsanis, Wagner, Gascon and Brown JJ.:

The question in the appeals is whether a person injured in an automobile accident who is eligible to receive compensation under the Act but whose condition is aggravated as a result of a fault committed by a third party can bring a civil action against the third party to seek compensation for bodily injury resulting from that subsequent fault. The question arises because the Act provides that, where bodily injury was “suffered . . . in an accident” (“causé dans un accident” in the French version of the Act), that is, “any event in which damage is caused by an automobile”, the compensation the victim can receive is limited exclusively to amounts paid by the SAAQ regardless of who is at fault. Moreover, s. 83.57 states that such compensation “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 difficulty in construing the word “causé” (caused) used in the French version of the Act in the context of the specific scheme of the Act stems mainly from its evocation of conceptions of causation that apply in the law of civil liability under the Civil Code of Québec. In light of the context of the enactment of the Act and the legislature’s intent, on the one hand, and the principles applicable to the interpretation of the Act, on the other, the appropriate causal link in the context of the compensation scheme established by the Act cannot be the same as or be derived from the one that prevails in the general law of civil liability: it is sui generis in nature. It must be given a large and liberal interpretation that will further the Act’s purpose, although that interpretation must also be plausible and logical. Whether such a link exists is primarily a question of logic and fact, and depends on the circumstances of each case. The appropriate causal link in the context of the Act is of course not as strong as the one that applies in the law of civil liability. We must therefore refrain from borrowing from concepts associated with the traditional form of causality, such as the distinction between the occasion and cause of the injury. For the purposes of the Act, it will be enough to establish a sufficiently close link between the bodily injury and the automobile accident; in contrast, a fortuitous connection will not suffice.

The Act was enacted nearly 40 years ago to address the serious inequities then occurring in the compensation of victims for bodily injuries caused by automobiles. It was rooted in a societal choice that reflected a social compromise by which all drivers were to collectively assume the financial consequences of bodily injuries caused by automobile accidents. Any civil action with respect to such injuries has been prohibited since that time. As the legislature intended, an automobile accident victim who suffers bodily injury in the accident and as a result of events subsequent to the accident — related, for example, to care or treatment provided after the accident or to the acts of first responders (police officers, ambulance attendants, etc.) at the scene of the accident — need not identify someone who has committed a fault, is guilty or can be blamed for the aggravation or a separate part of his or her injury. The purpose of the Act is to ensure that the victim need not engage in costly and uncertain court proceedings in order to obtain compensation for the whole of his or her injury.

The Act confers civil immunity on everyone in respect of injuries suffered in automobile accidents, and this immunity applies with no exceptions. 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, and the immunity it confers will apply. 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.

In these cases, the additional bodily injury suffered by TG and by GG is an injury “suffered . . . in an accident” within the meaning of the Act. It 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. The causal link under the Act is established regardless of the fact that the accident and the fault alleged against the third parties in question did not occur at the same time or in the same place. As a result, TG and GG are entitled to the compensation provided for in the Act but, because of s. 83.57 of the Act, are not entitled to bring further civil liability proceedings against the third parties in order to obtain additional or complementary compensation.

Finally, on the alternative issue, the acceptance of the compensation payments received from the SAAQ does not in itself bar any claim for damages from anyone in addition to or in lieu of that compensation on the basis that it entails a presumption of waiver of the right to bring an action against a third party. In the civil law, waiver (or renunciation) is either express or tacit. Moreover, whether there has been a waiver is very much a fact‑based question that depends, inter alia, on the intention of the waiving party. Evidence of that intention must be presented and analyzed before a waiver can be found to have occurred. No such intention has been proven in these cases, as they have not yet gone to trial, which means that it has not been possible to assess any evidence of the intention of TG or that of GG.

Per Côté J. (dissenting):

It was not open to the Court of Appeal to determine whether the injuries alleged by TG and GG in these cases were aggravated, as opposed to separate, injuries. An aggravated injury is very different from a separate injury caused by a fault subsequent to a first event. The fact that these cases concern separate injuries is admitted, as is — for the purposes of these appeals — the fact that the alleged faults were subsequent to the accidents.

Each time there is a separate injury, the court cannot conclude that an action is barred without first determining whether the injury in question was “suffered . . . in an accident”. The wording and purpose of the Act, together with the context in which it was enacted and the legislative intent, support the conclusion that it is necessary in each case to determine whether the Act applies to the separate injury at issue. A large and liberal interpretation is necessary in the determination of whether bodily injury was suffered in an accident. However, such a large and liberal interpretation of the Act in combination with the sui generis nature of the causal link cannot have the effect of making the scope of the Act so broad that the issue of causation becomes totally irrelevant. It is wrong to conclude that the sui generis nature of causation in the context of the Act’s compensation scheme necessarily implies that the initial chain of causation can never be broken by a new fact that causes a separate injury.

No interpretation can be found to be plausible and logical if it leads to the conclusion that a medical or other fault subsequent to an accident is considered to occur “in an accident” simply because it has a link to that accident. Such an interpretation has the effect of linking separate and subsequent injuries to an accident that is merely the occasion of their occurrence but is not their cause. That interpretation cannot be reconciled with the words of the Act.

The only way to truly respect the legislature’s intent, which it has expressed in clear language in the Act, is to allow a civil action to be brought against a third party who committed a fault subsequently to an automobile accident and caused injuries separate from those suffered in the accident itself. In other words, the prohibition of civil actions provided for in s. 83.57 of the Act does not apply in such circumstances. Section 83.57 creates an exception to the general law of civil liability, which is based on the principle of full compensation, and such an exception must be narrowly construed.

In the Act, the legislature has defined a compensable bodily injury as any physical or mental injury, including death, “suffered . . . in an accident” and has, in addition, defined an accident as “any event in which damage is caused by an automobile”. If it had wanted the scope of the compensation scheme to extend to separate injuries suffered as a result of an event subsequent to an accident (here, the subsequent fault), the legislature would have said so clearly and would thus have extended the scope of the Act to include injuries suffered “following an accident”. The words of the Act and common sense thus preclude the argument that a separate injury caused by a medical or a hospital fault — or by negligent conduct on the part of police officers — subsequent to an accident can constitute an injury that was “suffered . . . in an accident”. A medical or hospital fault, or a fault committed by police officers, does not occur in the general context of the use of a vehicle.

Such an interpretation is also mindful of the internal consistency of the Act, as it gives full meaning to s. 12.1. That provision, which contemplates the possibility of a party bringing a civil action in order to seek compensation for bodily injuries that were not “suffered . . . in an accident”, shows that a victim has a right to bring a civil action against a third party in respect of an injury that is not covered by the Act.

Road risks are what the legislature wanted to provide for in a scheme that pays compensation regardless of who is at fault. The legislature did not intend to create, nor did it in fact create, a no‑fault liability scheme for police officers, physicians or other third parties who might commit faults subsequently to automobile accidents and thereby cause separate injuries. The interpretation of the Act should not therefore produce such a result. It is up to the legislature, not the courts, to expand the coverage of the Act to other types of risks, since the application of the general law of civil liability cannot be excluded without a clear intervention on the legislature’s part. The scope of s. 83.57 of the Act is therefore limited by the wording of the section: although the Act must be interpreted liberally, this should not make it possible to extrapolate and to extend the immunity it confers to everything that relates in any way to an automobile accident.

Therefore, s. 83.57 of the Act does not bar the action in damages. Moreover, the fact that compensation has been claimed and received from the SAAQ by the victims cannot be interpreted as a waiver of any civil action. The concept of waiver does not apply within the framework of the Act. The effect of s. 83.57 of the Act is to establish a single, complete compensation scheme for the injuries the Act covers. It is the fact that damage is characterized as “bodily injury” that gives rise to a right to compensation: if the bodily injury was suffered in an accident, then the Act applies and s. 83.57 bars any action is respect of that injury in a court of civil jurisdiction. This means that an individual never has both a right to compensation under the Act and a right to take the person allegedly responsible for his or her injury to court. In short, it is impossible to waive a right that one does not have.

Reasons for judgment: Wagner J. (McLachlin C.J. and Abella, Karakatsanis, Gascon and Brown JJ. concurring)

Dissenting Reasons: Côté, J.

Neutral Citation: 2017 SCC 18

Docket Number: 36385, 36388