Is a Plaintiff required to prove that they suffer from a recognized psychiatric illness in order to recover for mental injury? The Supreme Court has definitively said the answer is “no” in their recent decision in Saadati v Moorhead, a case that will be critically important to anyone who regularly prosecutes or defends personal injury claims.

Background

To recover for mental injury, a Plaintiff must show that their injury is “serious and prolonged” and rises above the “ordinary emotional disturbances that will occasionally afflict any member of civil society without violating his or her right to be free of negligently caused mental injury.” (para 19)

Canadian courts had developed a requirement that a Plaintiff meet a threshold of proving a recognized psychiatric illness through expert medical evidence to recover for mental injury, but the Supreme Court had never addressed that requirement.

The Supreme Court’s last thorough consideration of mental injury claims was in 2008 in Mustapha v. Culligan of Canada Ltd., but that decision dealt with remoteness, and did not consider the ‘recognized psychiatric illness’ threshold.

Facts

Saadati arose out of a 2005 accident in which Mr. Moorhead hit Mr. Saadati’s tractor trailer. The accident was the second in a series of five accidents involving Mr. Saadati. He was taken to the Hospital, but had evidently suffered no physical injuries, and was not admitted for observation.

In 2007, Mr. Saadati brought an action against Mr. Moorhead and others for general damages and past income loss. At trial, the Defendants admitted liability for the accident, but said that Mr. Saadati suffered no damages. The Trial judge disagreed, and found, on the basis of the testimony from friends and family of Mr. Saadati, that the accident had changed Mr. Saadati’s personality for the worse and caused headaches. Mr. Saadati was awarded $100,000 in general damages, and no damages for past income loss.

The Defendants appealed and the Court of Appeal held that the trial judge erred in awarding damages for mental injury where Mr. Saadati had not met the threshold of proving a recognized psychiatric illness through expert medical evidence. Mr. Saadati appealed.

Analysis

The Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeal’s decision and restored the trial judgement.

The Court began its discussion on mental injury by confirming that there is no special proximity analysis for claims of mental injury as “the elements of the cause of action of negligence” furnish “principled and sufficient barriers to unmeritorious or trivial claims”. (para 21)

The Court then addressed the central issue on the appeal, i.e. whether establishing a recognized psychiatric illness through expert medical evidence is a threshold to recovering for mental injury. The Court held that it is not as “no cogent basis has been offered to this Court for erecting distinct rules which operate to preclude liability in cases of mental injury, but not in cases of physical injury.” (para 35)

The decision appears to be animated by fairness concerns, as the Court held:

requiring claimants who allege one form of personal injury (mental) to prove that their condition meets the threshold of “recognizable psychiatric illness”, while not imposing a corresponding requirement upon claimants alleging another form of personal injury (physical) to show that their condition carries a certain classificatory label, is inconsistent with prior statements of this Court, among others. It accords unequal — that is, less — protection to victims of mental injury. (para 36)

The Court acknowledged that mental injury may not be as readily demonstrable as physical injury, but “the claimant’s task in establishing a mental injury is to show the requisite degree of disturbance.” (para 37) The Court also confirmed that expert evidence can assist in determining whether or not mental injury has been proven; it is just not a requirement. (para 38)

Commentary

When considering the impact of Saadati it is important to remember that the Supreme Court was only answering the “narrow question of whether it is strictly necessary… for a claim to adduce expert evidence or other proof of a recognized psychiatric illness.” (para 13) Attempts to suggest that Saadati stands for any broader proposition should be met with scepticism.

As the Supreme Court noted, the requirement of establishing a recognized psychiatric illness is a recognized threshold in other common wealth jurisdictions including England, New Zealand, and Australia. (para 28) It will be interesting to see whether this decision has any impact on the threshold requirement in those other commonwealth jurisdictions.

Finally, the Supreme Court’s comments concerning the sufficiency of pleadings are noteworthy. The Claim in Saadati made no specific reference to mental injury beyond:

such further and other injuries as may become apparent through medical reports and examinations, details of which shall be provided as they become known;

and the effects or results of the said injuries upon the Plaintiff include headaches, fatigue, dizziness, nausea and sleeplessness. (para 10)

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court concluded that those allegations, along with an expert report diagnosing Mr. Saadati with mental disorders (although they may have arisen from other accidents), were sufficient to put the Defendants on notice that a claim would be made for mental injury.

Case Information

Saadati v. Moorhead, 2017 SCC 28

Docket: 36703

Date of Decision: June 2, 2017