Ontario: Court of Appeal affirms that discovery of a cause of action isn’t discovery of a claim

The Court of Appeal decision in Gillham v. Lake of Bays (Township) is noteworthy for two  reasons.

First, it uses the concept of the “claim” (which is the language of the Limitations Act) rather than the concept of the “cause of action” (which is not the language of the Limitations Act) for its limitations analysis.  See for example para. 20:

[20]      The overarching question in the discoverability analysis under s. 5 of the Act is whether the claimant knew or reasonably should have known, exercising reasonable diligence, the material facts stipulated under s. 5(1)(a) that give rise to a claim: Ferrara v. Lorenzetti, Wolfe Barristers and Solicitors2012 ONCA 851 (CanLII), 113 O.R. (3d) 401, at para. 32. Section 1 of the Act defines a claim as “a claim to remedy an injury, loss or damage that occurred as a result of an act or omission”. Section 2(1) provides that the Act “applies to claims pursued in court proceedings” (with certain enumerated exceptions that do not apply here).

(A slight quibble: the s. 5(1)(a) matters do not give rise to a claim.  Only two facts—an act or omission resulting in injury, loss, or damage—give rise to a claim pursuant to its definition in s. 1.  Knowledge of the s. 5(1)(a) matter results in discovery of the claim.)

It even puts “cause of action” in quotation marks–presumably to distinguish it from a claim–in the context of stating that knowledge of the material facts of a cause of action is not discovery of a claim:

[33]      The motion judge erred in failing to undertake an analysis of the criterion under s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Act. That the appellants might have a “cause of action” against the defendants, as the motion judge found, is not the end of the analysis under s. 5(1) of the Act. As this court said in Kudwah v. Centennial Apartments2012 ONCA 777 (CanLII), 223 A.C.W.S. (3d) 225, at para. 2:

It is important when considering a limitation period claim to appreciate that the terms of the 2002 Act must govern. A court considering the limitation claim must address the specific requirements of s. 5 of the Act, particularly on the facts of this case, the requirement of s. 5(1)(a)(iv).


Second, it acknowledges the accrual of a claim as the starting point of the limitations analysis, and that discovery of the claim requires knowledge that a proceeding is an appropriate remedy for the loss:

[34]      Therefore, the motion judge had to consider whether the appellants had a claim as defined under the Act. In considering whether the appellants knew or should have known that they had a claim, the motion judge had to go on to consider whether, having regard to the nature of the injury, loss or damage, the appellants knew or should have known that a proceeding would be an appropriate means to seek to remedy it. This omission by the motion judge is an error of law: Har Jo Management Services Canada Ltd. v. York (Regional Municipality)2018 ONCA 469 (CanLII), at paras. 21 and 35.

[35]      Section 5(1)(a)(iv) represents a legislative addition to the other factors under the discoverability analysis. As Laskin J.A. explained in 407 ETR Concession Company Limited v. Day2016 ONCA 709 (CanLII), 133 O.R. (3d) 762, leave to appeal to SCC refused, [2016] S.C.C.A. No. 509, at paras. 33-34:

The appropriateness of bringing an action was not an element of the former limitations statute or the common law discoverability rule. This added element can have the effect – as it does in this case – of postponing the start date of the two-year limitation period beyond the date when a plaintiff knows it has incurred a loss because of the defendant’s actions.

Also, when an action is “appropriate” depends on the specific factual or statutory setting of each individual case: see Brown v. Baum2016 ONCA 325 (CanLII), 397 D.L.R. (4th) 161, at para. 21. Case law applying s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act, 2002 is of limited assistance because each case will turn on its own facts.

This is a very welcome statement from the Court of Appeal.  It’s a step away from the misapplication of common law discovery principles to limitations analyses that has caused a great deal of confusion and uncertainty.

Lastly, the decision finds that it was appropriate for the plaintiffs to “wait and see” in the context of a construction dispute before commencing a proceeding.  I often see it argued that Presidential stands for the principle that there are only two circumstances in which a proceeding will be an inappropriate remedy—where the defendant undertakes good faith ameliorative efforts or there is an alternative dispute resolution process. This is a misapprehension of the law, as this decision demonstrates.  Here’s the key analysis:

[37]      Here, the motion judge failed to consider “the specific factual or statutory setting” of the case before him and determine whether it was reasonable for the appellants not to immediately commence litigation but to “wait and see” if the 1 ¼ inch sinking of the deck pier observed in 2009 would worsen over time or if the issue would resolve once the stone retaining wall had settled, as had been suggested to the appellants by Mr. MacKay. Neither Royal Homes nor Mr. MacKay believed the problem was serious, or due to the manner of construction. This evidence does not support the conclusion that the appellants knew or ought to have known in 2009 that their loss was not trivial and initiating legal proceedings was the appropriate means to remedy their loss.


Ontario: bad limitations analyses are why we can’t have nice things

Two recent decisions contain limitations analyses sufficiently flawed for me to ask that you indulge my pedantry.  This lesson is titled A bad limitations analysis makes everyone lose  

 In Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Company v. Lloyd’s Underwriters, the analysis begins with a flawed premise resulting in more questions than the decision answers.

LawPro applied for a declaration that Lloyd’s was obliged to contribute to the defence costs of a common insured.  Lloyd’s took the position that the LawPro’s claim for contribution was statute-barred.  Justice James considered the issue:


[18]           On the facts present here, the entitlement of the applicant to seek a contribution from the respondent has not proscribed. I base this view on my reading of section 5(1) of the Limitations Act and in particular sub-clause 5(1)(a)(iv). There is no mandated single point in time for the applicant to request a contribution from the respondent. For the LimitationsAct to apply, it would be necessary to conclude that the claim, having been “discovered” and the request for compensation having been rejected by the opposing party, “a proceeding would be the appropriate means to seek a remedy”. Put another way, when the applicant requested a contribution from the respondent and the respondent declined the request, was it appropriate for the applicant to respond by commencing an action? I would say not. Not enough was known to say that the claim had been discovered. It could equally be appropriate to await further developments in the claim against the insured and to defer bringing the matter to a head until more information is known and the facts had emerged with greater clarity.

“For the Limitations Act to apply…?”.  This is a bad start.  The Limitations Act applies to all claims pursued in court proceedings (subject to the s. 2 exceptions), not merely those that have been discovered.

The analysis ought to have begun with the the first question in any limitations analysis:  is there claim?  Limitation periods apply to proceedings commenced in respect of a claim. If a proceeding doesn’t advance a claim, it’s not subject to a limitation period.

Assuming LawPro did have a claim, the next question ought to have been determining the act or omission that the claim seeks to remedy.  The date of the act or omission is when the presumptive limitation period commences.

If LawPro brought the application within two years of that date, its application was timely.  If not, the next question ought to have been when a reasonable person with LawPro’s abilities and in its circumstances ought to have discovered the claim.  For its application to be timely, LawPro would have needed to file it within two years of this date.

When LawPro ought to have discovered its claim required asking when it ought to have known of its loss, that wrongful conduct caused the loss, and that it was Lloyd’s wrongful conduct.  It seems likely that it ought to have known all of this on the day of Lloyd’s refusal.  We can’t be sure, because the limitations analysis doesn’t determine this.

Instead, there are conclusions without explanation.  Not enough was known at the time of the refusal for the claim to have been discovered.  What did LawPro not yet know?  It was appropriate for LawPro to await further developments that would provide more information and greater factual clarity.  What information and factual clarity did LawPro require? Why was it inappropriate for LawPro within the meaning of s. 5(1)(a)(iv) to use a proceeding as remedy for its loss on the date of Lloyd’s refusal?  The analysis answers none of these questions.  Perhaps it’s correct, but it’s impossible for the reader to know.

In Leblanc v. Glass, the plaintiff Leblanc claimed that the defendants Glass and Vitiello conspired to deprive her of properties and committed breach of trust.  Vitiello moved for summary judgment on the basis that Leblanc’s claim was statute-barred.

Justice Hennessy framed the issue:

[9]               In order to determine the issue of discoverability, the following questions must be addressed. The answers will come from the pleadings, the productions or the examinations:

a.      What did Jonathan A. Glass tell Marie Leblanc?  What did Marie Leblanc discover in Feb 2014?

b.      What did Jonathan A. Glass disclose that Marie Leblanc did not already know or could have known?

c.      Did the contents of Jonathan A. Glass’ disclosure amount to evidence of fraud, conspiracy or breach of trust against Civita Vitiello?

The discovery analysis may require answering these questions, but they are not the questions that determine discovery.  Discovery, as we know, turns on knowledge of the matters in s. 5 of the Limitations Act.  Again, to determine the date of discovery you ask, in this order, what is the act or omission that is the basis of the claim, and when would a reasonable person with the abilities and in the circumstances of the plaintiff have known of her loss, that an act or omission caused the loss, that the defendant caused the act or omission, and that a proceeding was an appropriate remedy for the loss.

Importantly, the common law discovery principle does not determine discovery within the meaning of the Limitations Act:


[21]           The obligation is on the plaintiff is to use reasonable diligence in discovering the material facts in relation to the claim. The limitation period will run once the plaintiff knows the identity of the tortfeasor and that some damage has occurred. (Peixeiro v Haberman 1997 CanLII 325 (SCC), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 549, at para 18) The plaintiff is then required to lead sufficient evidence before the court showing that they exercised this reasonable diligence.

A plaintiff does not discovery her claim under the Limitations Act when she knows the identity of the wrongdoer and that some damage has occurred.  She must also know that a proceeding is an appropriate remedy for her loss.

Lastly, it is long settled that the doctrine of special circumstances does not apply to the Limitations Act:

[34]           The limitation period under s. 4 of the Limitations Act, 2002, S.O. 2002, c. 24, Sch. B applies. There are no special circumstances justifying an extension of the limitation.There is no reason to consider special circumstances, because the principle of special circumstances is of no application.

Muddled limitations analyses like these are not helpful to the parties or the jurisprudence.