Ontario: Court of Appeal narrows the s. 5(1)(a)(iv) “alternative process” principle

The Court of Appeal decision in Beniuk v. Leamington (Municipality) is an important addition to s. 5(1)(a)(iv) appropriateness jurisprudence.

It has become popular to argue that an alternative dispute resolution process with a clear and identifiable conclusion delays the appropriateness of a civil proceeding as a remedy, and therefore discovery of a claim.  Beniuk holds that this isn’t the law: whether an alternative process impacts on appropriateness is a question of fact that the plaintiff must prove.

The appellant in Beniuk argued that the Court of Appeal’s decision in 407 ETR stands for the principle that when there is an alternative dispute resolution process, an action becomes an appropriate remedy only when the alternative process concludes.  It followed that that the limitation period or the appellant’s action didn’t not run until the OMB confirmed that it did not have jurisdiction over its cause of action: if the OMB assumed jurisdiction, there would have been no need for the action; therefore, the OMB hearing was an alternative process that until concluded rendered an action inappropriate.

Nope, held the court.

A limitation period doesn’t run whenever there is an ongoing alternative process.  Whether an alternative process delays the running of time turns on the particular facts of each case.  Evidence is necessary to explain the basis for pursuing the alternative process rather than commencing a proceeding.

[60]      407 ETR does not stand for a general principle that a limitation period will not begin to run whenever an alternative process that might resolve the matter has not yet run its course. It is a matter of evidence. Indeed, Laskin J.A. noted, at para. 34, that when an action is “appropriate” will depend on the specific factual or statutory setting of each individual case, and that case law applying s. 5(1)(a)(iv) is of limited assistance because each case will turn on its own facts. In 407 ETR, the court considered the evidence on the motion about the statutory scheme and the effectiveness of the administrative process before deciding that it would be reasonable for such a process to run its course before a civil proceeding was appropriate.

[61]      Recently, several cases considering the application of s. 5(1)(a)(iv) have come before this court. The court has emphasized, echoing the words of Laskin J.A. in 407 ETR, that when a proceeding is appropriate will turn on the facts of each case: see, for example, Nelson v. Lavoie2019 ONCA 43147 C.C.P.B. (2d) 1, at para. 25, and Ridel v. Goldberg, 2019 ONCA 636436 D.L.R. (4th) 453, at para. 71.

[62]      This case did not involve an alternative process available under a statutory scheme. It did, however, involve an alternative process that the appellants were pursuing, as in 407 ETR, against the same party.

[63]      The fact that a plaintiff chooses to pursue an alternative process does not in itself suspend the running of the limitation period under s. 5(1)(a)(iv). Whether an alternative process will have this effect will depend on the particular factual circumstances and the evidence before the court in determining the limitations issue. In this case, there was no evidence to explain why the appellants chose to pursue the OMB route rather than commencing both an OMB proceeding and a civil action.

[74]      As I have already observed, 407 ETR does not stand for the general principle that it will always be appropriate to wait until another process has run its course before commencing a civil action in respect of a claim which has otherwise been “discovered” under s. 5(1)(a)(i), (ii) and (iii). It is incumbent on a party asserting that it was reasonable to pursue a claim in another forum to explain why this approach was reasonable. That is what occurred, and was ultimately successful, in the 407 ETR case.

[75]      While one of the principles recognized in connection with s. 5(1)(a)(iv) is the deterrence of unnecessary litigation, a plaintiff is not entitled in all cases to pursue one route, and to expect the limitation period to be tolled in respect of any other claim it may have in respect of its loss or damage. Said another way, s. 5(1)(a)(iv) does not permit a party to engage in litigation in stages for the same wrong. An example is Lilydale Cooperative Limited v. Meyn Canada Inc.2019 ONCA 761439 D.L.R. (4th) 385, where this court considered the submission that a limitation period in respect of a third party claim in Ontario was suspended while the defendant was seeking to establish that Alberta was the correct forum for the litigation. Feldman J.A. rejected the argument that it was not legally appropriate to commence a legal proceeding while another resolution process that might resolve the matter was ongoing. She held that such an interpretation of “appropriate” was inconsistent with the purpose of the Limitations Act and could extend the limitation period well beyond the two-year threshold in an uncertain and unpredictable manner. There were also no significant savings to be achieved by not commencing the third party claim until the forum challenge was complete.

Here, the OMB wasn’t an alternative process, but an alternative forum, and the availability of multiple forums doesn’t impact on discovery because the law deems a party to know the applicable legal principles (that is, which forum is correct):
[70]      While I can appreciate why the appellants may have thought they had a claim for injurious affection, it has always been a principle of limitations law that a plaintiff knows, or could by the exercise of reasonable diligence, determine what legal principles apply. See, for example, Boyce v. Toronto Police Services Board2011 ONSC 53, aff’d: 2012 ONCA 230, leave to appeal refused: [2012] S.C.C.A. No. 265, where Low J. stated, at para. 23:
Section 5(1)(a)(iv) does not import an idiosyncratic limitation period calibrated by the claimant’s familiarity with or ignorance of the law. The test is an objective one. While it is possible to envisage that a new kind of right might arise that has not been hitherto protected, thus making it arguable that a civil proceeding might not be seen objectively as an appropriate means to seek to remedy, a battery causing personal injury is a classic example of the kind of wrong that is appropriate for redress by court action. A citizen is presumed to know the law of the land. [Emphasis added.]

This strikes me as a material and reasonable narrowing of the s. 5(1)(a)(iv) “alternative dispute resolution process” principle.  Whether an alternative process impacts on discovery is a question of fact, and the plaintiff will need to establish that it was reasonable in the circumstances to allow the process to complete before commencing a proceeding.  This should discourage some of the more creative alternative process arguments, of which I see many.

Also noteworthy is the confirmation that an action in nuisance or negligence for damages relating to real property is “an action to recover land” for the purpose of RPLA and subject to its ten-year limitation period:

[42]      Subsection 2(1)(a) of the Limitations Act provides that the Limitations Act does not apply to proceedings to which the RPLA applies. Section 4 of the RPLA provides for a ten-year limitation period for an action to recover land:

 No person shall make an entry or distress, or bring an action to recover any land or rent, but within ten years next after the time at which the right to make such entry or distress, or to bring such action, first accrued to some person through whom the person making or bringing it claims, or if the right did not accrue to any person through whom that person claims, then within ten years next after the time at which the right to make such entry or distress, or to bring such action, first accrued to the person making or bringing it.

[43]      When the elements that do not apply to this case are removed, s. 4 provides that “no person shall bring an action to recover any land, but within ten years after the time at which the right to bring any such action first accrued to the person bringing it.” The issue here is whether the appellants’ claim is an “action to recover land” within the meaning of the RPLA.

 [44]      The appellants point to the definition of “land” in s. 1 of the RPLA:
 “land” includes messuages and all other hereditaments, whether corporeal or incorporeal, chattels and other personal property transmissible to heirs, money to be laid out in the purchase of land, and any share of the same hereditaments and properties or any of them, any estate of inheritance, or estate for any life or lives, or other estate transmissible to heirs, any possibility, right or title of entry or action, and any other interest capable of being inherited, whether the same estates, possibilities, rights, titles and interest or any of them, are in possession, reversion, remainder or contingency; [Emphasis added.]

[45]      They rely on the term “messuages”, which refers to a dwelling house, its outbuildings, the area immediately surrounding the dwelling, and the adjacent land appropriate to its use: McConnell v. Huxtable2014 ONCA 86118 O.R. (3d) 561, at para. 14. The appellants also parse out and rely on the phrase “any…right…of…action”. Putting these pieces together, the appellants submit that an “action to recover land” includes an action to recover rights that run with the land, and that a cause of action for nuisance is tied to and arises out of the right to use and enjoy land without substantial interference. Accordingly, the appellants submit that a cause of action for nuisance is an incorporeal or intangible right that runs with the property and is captured by the definition of “land” in the RPLA. They point to a passage in Equitable Trust Co. v. 2062277 Ontario Inc.2012 ONCA 235109 O.R. (3d) 561, where Perell J. (sitting on this court ad hoc) stated that the RPLA is intended to cover actions “affecting” land: Equitable Trust, at para. 28.

 [46]      I do not accept the appellants’ submission. There is no support in the jurisprudence that an action in nuisance or negligence for damages relating to real property is “an action to recover land” for the purposes of the RPLA. That land or real property is involved in an action does not mean that the RPLA applies: Harvey v. Talon International Inc.2017 ONCA 267137 O.R. (3d) 184, at paras. 51-52. Typically, actions to recover land seek to assert property rights. And Perell J.’s remark from Equitable Trust that the RPLA covers actions “affecting” land has been commented on specifically by this court, and later by Perell J. himself, as a statement that should be interpreted narrowly and not out of the context of that case.

Lastly, I note that the court stated the standard of review with respect to each limitations issue.  For whatever reason, the court frequently omits an explicit standard of review analysis when considering limitations issues.  This approach is helpful and I hope to see more of it.

[41]      The motion judge’s conclusion that s. 4 of the RPLA does not apply to the appellants’ civil action is reviewable on a standard of correctness: Housen v. Nikolaisen2002 SCC 33[2002] 2 S.C.R. 235, at para. 8. For the reasons that follow, I agree with the motion judge’s conclusion on this issue.

[53]      The question of whether a limitation period expired prior to the issuance of a statement of claim is a question of mixed fact and law and subject to review on the standard of palpable and overriding error: Longo v. MacLaren Art Centre Inc.2014 ONCA 526323 O.A.C. 246, at para. 38. However, where there is an extricable error of principle, the standard of review is correctness: Housen, at paras. 8 and 36.

[79]      The appellants contend that the motion judge made a palpable and overriding error when he concluded that their claim was statute-barred even on the basis of what he described as a “rolling limitation period”. A “palpable and overriding error” is “an obvious error that is sufficiently significant to vitiate the challenged finding of fact”: Longo, at para. 39.

Ontario: Court of Appeal on the impact of a forum dispute on a third party claim

Will a third party claim become an appropriate remedy within the meaning of s. 5(1)(a)(iv) only once the court has determined the forum for the main action?  No, held the Court of Appeal in Lilydale Cooperative Limited v. Meyn Canada Inc.  The issues arising from a contested forum, in particular the risk of attornment, are tactical and do not impact on when the claimant discovers the claim.  The court’s analysis is well-reasoned:

[49]      Meyn’s position is that it was not legally appropriate under s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act to bring the third party proceedings until the forum issue was finally decided in February 2008 and that the two years ran from that time. Its submission is based on what occurred in the main action where Lilydale took the position by letter dated March 10, 2006 that it would only be proceeding in one jurisdiction, Alberta or Ontario. Meyn did not defend or take any steps in the Ontario action. In its submissions on this appeal, Meyn explained that the reason for this was because it believed that doing so had the potential to undermine its position in support of the stay of the Ontario action.

 [50]      Meyn’s argument regarding discoverability has two prongs. First, it could not deliver any third party claim in the Ontario action to ensure that it did not attorn and thereby jeopardize the forum argument. Second, if it had been successful in establishing that Alberta was the correct forum, then the Ontario action would have been discontinued and there would have been no need for any third party proceedings. Therefore, the principle applies from 407 ETR Concession Co. v. Day2016 ONCA 709133 O.R. (3d) 762, and Presidential MSH Corp. v. Marr, Foster & Co. LLP2017 ONCA 325135 O.R. (3d) 321, that it would not be legally appropriate to commence a legal proceeding while another resolution process that may resolve the matter is ongoing.

[55]      While a finding that serving a third party claim amounted to attornment could be prejudicial, or even fatal to a party’s forum challenge, the strategic decision of how to deal with this risk of prejudice is the type of tactical consideration that does not affect the “legally appropriate” calculus in s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act. The issue of whether serving a third party claim solely to protect a limitation period will amount to voluntary attornment is for the forum judge to decide. It does not affect the discoverability of the third party claim and therefore the commencement of the limitation period.

 [56]      I also note that a party such as Meyn, facing the expiry of a limitation period, had a number of procedural avenues to take to avoid that consequence rather than allow a limitation period to expire or be found to have expired on the application of discoverability principles.
 [57]      First, Meyn could have alerted Weishaupt that the third party claim was coming and sought its agreement under s. 22(3) of the Limitations Act to a stand-still pending the determination of the forum issue. I can see no reason for the third party not to agree. However, if there were one, then judicial authorization on the attornment issue could be sought. That is what occurred in Joyce v. MtGox Inc.2016 ONSC 581, where Perell J., on a case management conference in advance of the expiry of the limitation period, involving a party in Meyn’s position, ruled that issuing the third party claim would not amount to attornment.
 [58]      Second, Meyn could have served the third party claim, with an express reservation of its rights, and then argued at its forum motion that it did so only to preserve the limitation period and therefore has not attorned to Ontario’s jurisdiction. Meyn brought a forum non conveniens motion. It was understood by all the existing parties that Meyn was not acknowledging the convenience of Ontario as the forum for the action by bringing the motion. While that motion was outstanding, it would be anomalous indeed if Meyn’s service of a third party claim to preserve a limitation period in Ontario would be found to amount to such an acknowledgement.
 [59]      To conclude, while risk of attornment was a potentially legitimate concern for Meyn, that concern related to its position on the forum issue and did not affect the discoverability of its third party claim and the need to take the steps necessary to preserve the claim within the limitation period.

The appellant also argued that the forum dispute had the potential to resolve the third party claim, and was therefore an alternative resolution process that could render the third party proceeding inappropriate until its conclusion.  The court rejected this submission.  The forum dispute couldn’t resolve the third party claim, it would only move it to another jurisdiction.

[63]      The forum challenge is conceptually similar to settlement discussions, which may resolve the entire claim so that no court proceeding need be commenced, but nonetheless do not postpone the running of the limitation period: see Presley v. Van Dusen2019 ONCA 66432 D.L.R. (4th) 712, at para. 25; and Markel at para. 34.

[64]      As in RidelTapak v. Non-Marine UnderwritersLloyd’s of London2018 ONCA 16876 C.C.L.I. (5th) 197, leave to appeal refused, [2018] S.C.C.A. No. 157, and Gravelle, in this case, there was no alternative resolution process to which Weishaupt was a party that could have resolved the issue between it and Meyn. Rather, Meyn was attempting to have the whole Ontario action dismissed, obviating the need for the third party claim.

[65]      To allow parties to wait, at their discretion, for other court or arbitral proceedings to conclude, where the result could obviate the need to bring a claim that they know exists, is inconsistent with the purpose of the Limitations Act for two reasons. First, this approach could extend the limitation period well beyond the two year original threshold in an uncertain and unpredictable manner. Second, there were no significant savings to be achieved by not commencing the third party claim until the forum challenge was complete. Procedurally, a stand-still or tolling agreement could be sought until the forum issue had been finalized by the court so that the third party would not be required to plead in response. However, it would be on notice that if the Ontario action proceeds, it is a named party, required to preserve its documents, and respond to the action as advised.
[66]      In my view, these factors drive the conclusion that the day Meyn was served with the statement of claim by Lilydale, it knew that a third party claim against Weishaupt was the appropriate means to seek a remedy from Weishaupt. It was therefore not “legally appropriate” for Meyn to wait until the forum issue had been decided before the commencing third party claim.

Ontario: Court of Appeal on the interaction of s. 5(1)(a)(iv) and s. 18 of the Limitations Act

Two aspects of the Court of Appeal’s decision in Ridel v. Goldberg are noteworthy.

First, the court held that a contribution and indemnity proceeding does not become an appropriate remedy for a loss only when the main action resolves.  Section 5(1)(a)(iv) will not suspend the limitation period as against a second defendant where a plaintiff has commenced a legal proceeding against another defendant for the same wrong:

[70]      The appellants rely on s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act to argue that the appeal of the 2013 Judgment postponed the running of the limitation period against e3m. They say that, because the appeal may have eliminated e3m’s liability to the Ridels and hence e3m’s claim against Goldberg, they would not reasonably have known that an action was “an appropriate means” to seek to remedy e3m’s losses until the appeal was dismissed.

[72]      The appellants rely on this court’s decision in Independence Plaza 1 Associates, L.L.C. v. Figliolini2017 ONCA 44136 O.R. (3d) 202, a case involving an action in Ontario to enforce a foreign judgment, in support of their argument that it was not legally appropriate to commence a claim against Goldberg until the appeal of the 2013 Judgment was determined. In Figliolini, this court held, at para. 77:

 In the usual case, it will not be legally appropriate to commence a legal proceeding on a foreign judgment in Ontario until the time to appeal the judgment in the foreign jurisdiction has expired or all appeal remedies have been exhausted. The foreign appeal process has the potential to resolve the dispute between the parties. If the judgment is overturned, the debt obligation underlying the judgment creditor’s proceeding on the foreign judgment disappears.

[73]      The appellants say that, just as this court held that the basic limitation period for an action to enforce a foreign judgment in Ontario runs from the date of exhaustion of all appeals (subject to discoverability principles), the same should apply to a claim that, as here, is based on a domestic judgment. In either case, the debt obligation underlying the claimant’s proceeding would disappear if the judgment were overturned.

 [74]      In my view, Figliolini does not apply by analogy or otherwise. The main issue in Figliolini was whether s. 16(1)(b) of the Limitations Act (which provides that there is no limitation period in respect of, among other things, “a proceeding to enforce an order of a court, or any other order that may be enforced in the same way as an order of a court”) would apply to an action to enforce a foreign judgment. The court rejected that argument, and then went on to determine when the basic two-year limitation period for an action to enforce a foreign judgment would begin to run.
 [75]      Figliolini dealt only with actions to enforce foreign judgments. Strathy C.J.O. noted that “a judgment creditor who brings an Ontario proceeding on a foreign judgment must show that the foreign court had jurisdiction and that the judgment is final and for the payment of money”: at para. 51. An action to enforce a domestic judgment is, by s. 16(1)(b) of the Limitations Act, not subject to any limitation period. And, importantly, actions such as the present action – which are not to enforce a judgment, but to claim indemnity – are governed by their own provisions in the Limitations Act that would be entirely undermined if the appellants’ argument were given effectThis is the fatal flaw in the appellants’ reliance on Figliolini.
 [76]      Unlike proceedings to enforce a foreign judgment, which require finality, there is no requirement that in order to effectively claim contribution and indemnity there must be a final judgment against the claimant. To the contrary, the two-year limitation period runs from the date the claim is made against the first wrongdoer, subject to the discoverability rules in s. 5(1)(a): Mega International, at para. 74. In Canaccord, this court noted that s. 18 of the Limitations Act specifically departs from the previous law for contribution claims between tortfeasors, where the limitation period ran against the party claiming indemnity from the date of judgment: at para. 20.
 [77]      While not determinative, this court’s decision in Tapak v. Non-Marine Underwriters, Lloyd’s of London2018 ONCA 16876 C.C.L.I. (5th) 197, leave to appeal refused, [2018] S.C.C.A. No. 157, is instructive. In that case, the appellants relied on s. 5(1)(a)(iv) to argue that an appeal against other parties, if successful, might have eliminated their losses and that they therefore did not know that their action for contribution and indemnity was “an appropriate means” to seek to remedy their losses until the appeal was dismissed. At para. 13, the court rejected this argument, stating:
 [Section] 5(1)(a)(iv) is not intended to be used to parse claims as between different defendants and thus permit one defendant to be pursued before turning to another defendant. Rather, it is intended to address the situation where there may be an avenue of relief outside of a court proceeding that a party can use to remedy their ‘injury, loss or damage’….

I agree with the latter observation that s. 5(1)(a)(iv) is not intended to operate in the manner proposed by the appellants.

[78]      In the present appeal, the appellants assert that it was legally appropriate for e3m to delay an action against Goldberg until the Prior Action was finally disposed of on appeal. This is precisely the sort of litigation in stages which will not delay the commencement of a limitation period for purposes of s. 5(1)(a)(iv). In the usual case, s. 5(1)(a)(iv) will not suspend the limitation period as against a second defendant where a plaintiff has commenced a legal proceeding against another defendant for the same wrong: Presley, at para. 31. This general principle is buttressed by the specific and certain rules for the commencement of claims for contribution and indemnity ushered in by s. 18 of the Limitations Act. Sharpe J.A., in Canaccord, carefully described the legislative history in concluding that s. 18 provided a “marked departure from” and “significant reforms to” the previous regime governing limitation periods for claims for contribution and indemnity: at para. 27. Under the previous law, a tort claimant seeking contribution and indemnity could wait for judgment in the main action before commencing a claim for indemnification. In contrast, “s. 18 significantly shortens the limitation period governing contribution and indemnity claims to two years from the date the first alleged wrongdoer was served with the underlying claim, thereby encouraging resolution of all claims arising from the wrong at the same time”: Canaccord, at para. 20.

This is the first time the court has confronted the tension between s. 18 and its recent appropriateness jurisprudence.  It is settled that an alternative process with the potential to eliminate the plaintiff’s loss can suspend the discovery of a claim.  In a claim for contribution and indemnity, if the main action results in the dismissal of the claim, the defendant will have no loss for which to claim contribution and indemnity.  The main action will have eliminated the plaintiff’s loss.

However, this is clearly at odds with the intent of s. 18, which the court notes.  I think the court resolved this problem as best it could: the main action is not an alternative process, but the same litigation.

Secondly, the court reiterated that s. 12 of the Limitations Act applies to claims asserted by a creditor who has taken an assignment of a claim of a bankrupt under s. 38 of the BIA. The applicable date of discovery is the earlier of the predecessor’s discovery of the claim, or the person claiming through the predecessor’s discovery of the claim.  The assignment does not restart the limitation period.

The court’s analysis is well-reasoned and instructive:

[44]      In this case, by contrast, the appellants are pursuing a claim that initially belonged to e3m and that vested in the trustee on e3m’s bankruptcy. The claim for breach of Goldberg’s fiduciary and other duties to e3m is not one that the appellants could have pursued before e3m’s bankruptcy. Indcondo did not address the question of when the limitation period under s. 12 would run in respect of a creditor who may well have known of the potential claim by the bankrupt, but had no way to enforce it until the bankruptcy.

 [45]      The appellants characterize the motions judge’s error here as a failure to consider s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act in relation to the claim against Goldberg. Whether a proceeding was an appropriate means to remedy a claim is an essential element in the discoverability analysis and the failure to consider s. 5(1)(a)(iv) is an error of law: Presley, at para. 15.
 [46]      I agree with the appellants that, because they lacked capacity to bring a claim in the name of e3m against Goldberg, any personal knowledge they might have had before e3m’s bankruptcy respecting a claim did not cause the limitation period to run against them pursuant to s. 12(1). In my view, however, this result does not flow from the application of s. 5(1)(a)(iv).
 [47]      In determining when the limitation period began to run in respect of the appellants’ claim, the question is when they, as “claimants” – that is, as persons who reasonably had the claim in question – knew or ought to have known of the matters referred to in s. 5(1)(a). The application of the test in s. 5(1)(a) requires first that the claims at issue be defined or identified: Morrison, at paras. 33, 49.
 [48]      In this case, the claim advanced in the appellants’ action is not a claim by them personally, or one that they could have advanced personally (as was the case in Indcondo), but a claim they are asserting on behalf of the bankrupt, e3m, against its former principal, Goldberg. Section 5(1) applies to “the person with the claim”. When they were litigating against e3m in the Prior Action, the appellants may well have known of the various matters under s. 5(1)(a) in the general sense, but because they were not and could not have been “the persons with the claim” at that stage, any such knowledge was immaterial.
 [49]      Until e3m was bankrupt, any claim against Goldberg for breach of his duties as a director could only be pursued by e3m. The appellants had no right, title or interest in the claim. They had no ability to bring the claim while the claim continued to belong to e3m.

[51]      Similarly, in this case, the appellants could not have asserted a claim against Goldberg for wrongs done to e3m until they obtained the s. 38 order. In other words, until they obtained the s. 38 order, they had no standing to claim for e3m’s losses. Any knowledge of Goldberg’s wrongdoing in relation to e3m, whether by virtue of what they themselves had pleaded in the Prior Action, or when they received Pepall J.’s reasons in the 2013 Judgment, was not sufficient for them to be able to act.

 [52]      The motions judge’s conclusion that, because of their personal knowledge of the material facts in relation to e3m’s claim against Goldberg, the limitation period began to run against the appellants as early as July 2006 and as late as April 2013, was therefore in error. Their knowledge of those matters did not become relevant until they had or ought reasonably to have had the authority to pursue the claim, which was, at the very earliest, upon the bankruptcy of e3m in January 2015.
 [53]      Under this analysis, s. 5(1)(a)(iv) is not engaged. The question is not whether the appellants knew or ought to have known that a proceeding by the company would be an appropriate remedy for Goldberg’s alleged wrongs. Until they had control over the claim, or the means to obtain such control (by moving promptly in e3m’s bankruptcy), they were not “claimants” for the purpose of s. 5(1)(a) and therefore their knowledge was not the knowledge of claimants under the section.

Ontario: an alternative resolution process that didn’t impact on the limitation period

Soleimani v. Rolland Levesque provides an example of an alternative resolution process that doesn’t render a proceeding an inappropriate remedy pursuant to s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act.

Th action involved claims between neighbouring property owners arising out of alleged contamination of the plaintiffs’ property by hydrocarbons flowing from the defendant’s property.  Following the discovery of the contamination, the plaintiffs notified the Ministry of the Environment (MOE), which  became involved in addressing the contamination.

In response to the defendant’s limitations defence, the plaintiffs argued that the MOE’s involvement was a reasonable means to attempt to remediate the damage, and a claim wasn’t an appropriate remedy for that damage until eight years later when expert investigation directed by the MOE (and funded by the defendant) determined the source of the contamination.

The court rejected this argument.  The MOE’s involvement was not part of a dispute resolution process or mechanism: the MOE acts at its own discretion, it has no power to award damages, and the there could be no certainty as to when its involvement would come to an end:

[45]           In considering whether the MOE’s interventions in this case constitute a legally appropriate means to remedy the plaintiffs’ damages it is necessary to recognize that the provisions of the EPA do not provide a dispute resolution process or mechanism.  The steps the MOE chooses to take are in the MOE’s discretion.  The MOE has no power to award damages or compensation to the plaintiffs.  Neither the previsions of the EPA nor the facts of this case allow the court to say with any certainty when the MOE’s involvement would come to an end so as to determine when the limitation period might commence.

[46]           Moreover the MOE intervention cannot result in a declaration of responsibility for the contamination nor can it award damages for stigma nor the full recovery of legal, engineering and other costs and expenses nor damages for other economic losses, all as claimed in the plaintiffs’ statement of claim.

[47]           On the other hand, I recognize that the MOE has substantial powers in the exercise of their discretion to require the defendants to investigate the cause of and remediate contamination on both the defendants’ and the plaintiffs’ lands and to direct that this be done at the defendants’ cost.

[48]           The EPA broadly empowers the MOE to make orders to clean up contamination and prevent the discharge of contaminants into the environment.  For instance, pursuant to section 17 of the EPA, the Director has the power to issue “remedial orders” where a person has caused or permitted a contaminant to be discharged into the natural environmental.  This section empowers the Director to order that person to repair the injury or damage:

Where any person causes or permits the discharge of a contaminant into the natural environment, so that land, water, property, animal life, plant life, or human health or safety is injured, damaged or endangered, the Director may order the person to,

a)            Repair the injury or damage;

b)           Prevent the injury or damage; or

c)            Where the discharge has damaged or endangered or is likely to damage or endanger existing water supplies, provide temporary or permanent alternate water supplies.

[49]           Pursuant to section 157.1 of the EPA, a provincial officer can also order a person who owns or who has management or control or property to take “preventive measures” to:

(a)           Prevent or reduce the risk of a discharge of a contaminant into the natural environment;

(b)         Prevent, decrease or eliminate an adverse affect that may result from:

(i)            The discharge of a contaminant from the undertaking, or

(ii)           The presence or discharge of a contaminant in, on or under the property.

[50]           In determining whether a court action is an appropriate remedy pursuant to s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Act, Laskin J.A. in ETR Concession instructed that the court should consider (a) the nature of the plaintiffs’ loss; (b) the circumstances of the plaintiffs, and (c) efficiency of the court.

[51]           This is an environmental claim.  The major dispute between the parties has been, at least until very recently, whether the pollutants are emanating from the defendants’ land onto the plaintiffs’ land or, as the defendants claim, from the plaintiffs’ land onto the defendants’ land.  On the facts of this case, there can be no doubt that the MOE’s interventions have provided a means to determine the source of the contamination and remedial orders have been made.

[52]           The plaintiffs submit that given their particular situation, the MOE interventions may substantially reduce the plaintiffs’ damages and therefore it would be inappropriate to require the plaintiffs to prematurely resort to court proceedings while the regulatory process under the EPA is ongoing.

[53]           In my view the principal difficulty with the plaintiffs’ position is that there is no reasonable basis to ascertain when the MOE’s involvement will end.  To date, it has gone on in excess of eight years with no end point in site.  I agree with the defendants’ submission that the EPA does not in any sense establish an alternative adjudication or dispute resolution process for contamination claims.  While the MOE has significant remedial powers to direct the investigation and remediation of ground water contamination, these powers are outside the land owners’ control and are discretionary in nature.  These powers do not include any right to award economic damages or to grant declaratory orders, which is a significant component of the relief sought in this action.

[54]           The plaintiffs have argued that the limitation period should not run until the causation question was resolved (within the last two years) concerning the direction of flow of the contaminants.  They suggest that prior to resolving that issue it would have been unreasonable to commence court proceedings.

[55]           The plaintiffs emphasize the benefits they have achieved by allowing the MOE to deal with the contamination.  Thanks to the MOE exercising its statutory powers to direct the investigation and remediation of the groundwater contamination, the plaintiffs have avoided the considerable engineering costs of investigating the problem, of obtaining experts’ reports and of soil removal and other remedial measures.  They have also avoided or lessened the litigation risk of a possible determination that the contamination emanated from their own property, rather than the defendants’ property.

[56]           In effect, the plaintiffs can be said, in retrospect, to have made a wise economic choice in leaving the contamination issue in the hands of the MOE.  However this was manifestly a tactical decision made by the plaintiffs to avoid the costs and litigation risks of investigating their claim and establishing their case on liability and damages.  They chose to stand back for some four years prior to commencing this action to allow the MOE to move matters forward.  The case law is clear that tactical decisions will not toll the limitation period, see Markel and Presidential MSR.  As Mew J. observed in J.C. v. Farant at para 87:

Another recent decision, Gravelle (CodePro Manufacturing) v. Denis Grigoras Law Office2018 ONCA 396 (CanLII), reinforced the principle that a tactical decision to delay the commencement of proceedings will not, absent other factors – such as the pursuit of alternative means to resolve the very claim that I the subject matter of the action – delay the running of time.  At para. 6, the Court of Appeal stated:

 The appellant decided for tactical reasons not to bring his action against the respondents until the arbitration proceedings were completed.  He was entitled to make this choice, but he must live with the consequences of it.

[59]           In my view this position is untenable and inconsistent with the appellate case law binding on this court.  The circumstances triggering the running of the limitation cannot be a moving target incapable of being ascertained with the level of reasonable certainty required.  This would create a situation in which the plaintiffs essentially determine when the limitation period commences.

[61]           In my opinion the approach advocated by the plaintiffs and the intervenors ignores the requirement that the appropriate means exception in sub-section 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Act be restricted to factual situations in which the alternate avenue of redress is legally appropriate in the sense that the courts must not be required to interpret the parties’ communications or negotiations or, be required to analyze the significance of the technical findings of ongoing engineering studies and importantly, there needs to be a fixed end point.