Ontario: Court of Appeal changes (maybe?) the limitation of claims arising from coverage denials

The Court of Appeal in its decision Nasr Hospitality Services Inc. v. Intact Insurance has held that, at least in the circumstances of the case, the limitation period for a coverage action commences presumptively on the date the insured gives notice of its loss to the insurer.  This is a significant departure from the bar’s understanding, and seemingly at odds with the Court’s decision in Kassburg, and problematic enough that Justice Feldman dissented.  Both the issues and the implications of the decision are significant, so I summarise the facts in some detail.

The plaintiff purchased a commercial insurance policy from Intact. On January 31, 2013, a flood occurred on the plaintiff’s premises.  The Plaintiff notified its broker of its loss, and the broker notified Intact.

On February 13, 2014, Intact confirmed coverage, subject to policy terms and conditions, for the business interruption the plaintiff suffered, and issued a cheque to cover the losses.  Intact issued another cheque in May 2013.

The plaintiff disputed Intact’s valuation of the claim.  On May 13, 2014,  Intact wrote to advise that it would not accept the plaintiff’s valuation.  Subsequently, the plaintiff submitted a proof of loss.  On June 25, 2013, Intact rejected the proof of loss as incomplete, and advised that it was not rejecting or denying the plaintiff’s claim.

The plaintiff filed a further proof of loss on June 26, 2013.  On July 22, 2013, Intact rejected the proof of loss and advised the plaintiff that it would deny any further coverage under the policy.  Curiously, the decision suggests that Intact nevertheless provided the plaintiff with a blank proof of loss form and advised that it had two years from the date of loss to finalise its claim.

It appears from the decision that the plaintiff filed a third proof of loss on July 31, 2013, and that on August 15, 2013, Intact returned rejected that proof of loss.

The plaintiff issued its Statement of Claim on April 22, 2015 seeking damages arising from the coverage denial.  Intact moved for summary judgment on the basis of an expired limitation period.  Intact lost the motion, and appealed.

The parties agreed that the plaintiff’s cause of action arose on February 1, 2013 and the Court of Appeal accepted this agreement as “an admission of fact that February 1, 2013 was the day on which [the plaintiff] first knew the matter in ss. 5(1)(a)(i)-(iii)” of the Limitations Act.  The court found this position was consistent with its decisions in Markel and Schmitz.  Once the insured requests indemnification, the insurer is under a legal obligation to satisfy it.

The court rejected the plaintiff’s s. 5(1)(a)(iv) appropriateness argument.  Though the jurisprudence recognizes that some conduct by an insurer after receiving notification of a claim under a policy can impact on the discovery of a claim, but to apply to in this instance would result in a form of promissory-estoppel, and the plaintiff had conceded that a promissory estoppel was unavailable:

[59]      Nasr has not pointed to any cases involving ordinary claims for indemnification under a commercial policy of insurance that have treated the appropriate means element in s. 5(1)(a)(iv) as some form of watered-down promissory estoppel. To treat s. 5(1)(a)(iv) in that manner for ordinary commercial insurance indemnification claims – as the motion judge effectively did – would risk ignoring the caution voiced by Sharpe J.A. in Markel Insurance, at para. 34 – and echoed by Laskin J.A. in 407 ETR, at para. 47 – that:

To give “appropriate” an evaluative gloss, allowing a party to delay the commencement of proceedings for some tactical or other reason beyond two years from the date the claim is fully ripened and requiring the court to assess to tone and tenor of communications in search of a clear denial would, in my opinion, inject an unacceptable element of uncertainty into the law of limitation of actions[Emphasis added.]

[60]      The motion judge did not find that Intact had promised, expressly or impliedly, not to rely on the limitation period. Accordingly, it was not open to the motion judge to recast, for purposes of the appropriate means analysis, the conduct by Intact that Nasr conceded could not support a finding of promissory estoppel that the insurer would not rely on the limitation period.  With respect, the motion judge erred in doing so.

Justice Feldman dissented.

She rejected that the limitation period should commence on the date of the loss, rather than the breach of the insurance contract:

[65]      In a nutshell, the appellant insurer asked the court to dismiss the insured’s action on the flood insurance policy on the basis that its claim is statute-barred, the claim having been brought more than two years after the flood, referred to as the loss. The problem is that this is not an action against the person who caused the flood. It is an action against the insurer for breach of the insurance policy. Therefore, the triggering event for the discoverability analysis and for the two-year limitation to begin running is the date the insurer breached its obligation under the policy to indemnify the insured for the loss it suffered in the flood.

The insurance policy itself would determine when the obligation to pay arose, and therefore the date on which Intact failed to perform that obligation in breach of the policy.  Because neither party put the policy into evidence, the moving party couldn’t prove when the breach occurred, and therefore when the limitation period commenced:

[65]      In a nutshell, the appellant insurer asked the court to dismiss the insured’s action on the flood insurance policy on the basis that its claim is statute-barred, the claim having been brought more than two years after the flood, referred to as the loss. The problem is that this is not an action against the person who caused the flood. It is an action against the insurer for breach of the insurance policy. Therefore, the triggering event for the discoverability analysis and for the two-year limitation to begin running is the date the insurer breached its obligation under the policy to indemnify the insured for the loss it suffered in the flood.

[65]      In a nutshell, the appellant insurer asked the court to dismiss the insured’s action on the flood insurance policy on the basis that its claim is statute-barred, the claim having been brought more than two years after the flood, referred to as the loss. The problem is that this is not an action against the person who caused the flood. It is an action against the insurer for breach of the insurance policy. Therefore, the triggering event for the discoverability analysis and for the two-year limitation to begin running is the date the insurer breached its obligation under the policy to indemnify the insured for the loss it suffered in the flood.

Further, an agreement between the parties as to when a cause of action arose cannot bind the court:

[72]      However, on appeal, the insurer again asks the court to reject the respondent’s argument, overturn the decision of the motion judge, and grant summary judgment. To grant summary judgment this court must then decide when the cause of action against the insurer for breach of the insurance contract arose, in order to determine when the limitation period commenced to run.

[73]      That is a question of mixed fact and law. The legal part requires the court to determine when the insurer became legally obligated to pay under the policy. The factual part is the determination of when the insurer did not pay in accordance with that obligation. Parties cannot bind the court on legal issues by agreement or concession. For example, in OECTA v. Toronto Catholic District School Board (2007), 2007 CanLII 6454 (ON SCDC)222 O.A.C. 23 (Div. Ct.), Lane J. stated at para. 13:

The fourth difficulty is that the agreement asserted is an agreement not as to the facts, but as to the law. Whether the doctrine of culminating event applies only where the alleged culminating act is culpable is a question of law. Parties cannot agree on the law so as to bind a court or tribunal to their view; the law is the law and it is always open to the tribunal to determine what it is.

Justice Feldman rejected the support the majority found in Markel and Schmitz.  In those cases, the legal obligations of the insurers arose from statute:

[78]      Markel Insurance involved a transfer claim for indemnification by a first party insurer against a second party insurer in the motor vehicle accident context. The claim was governed by the Insurance Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. I.8, its regulations, and procedures set out by the Financial Services Commission of Ontario. The court had all the information before it that it required to determine when the second insurer’s obligation to indemnify arose and was breached.

[79]      Similarly, in Schmitz, the claim for indemnity at issue was brought within and was governed by the underinsured motorist coverage provided by the OPCF 44R, an optional endorsement to Ontario’s standard form automobile insurance policy.

There are many things that are problematic with this decision, which is perhaps why it is one of the very few limitations decisions to have a dissent. Let’s go through the list:

  1. The foremost flaw is the majority’s ratio that the cause of the action accrued on February 1, 2013 based on the parties’ agreement. Curiously, neither the majority nor the motion judge set out what occurred on February 1, 2013.  Because the majority presumes that the limitation period commenced presumptively on the date of notice of the loss, I assume February 1, 2013 was the date the insured through its broker gave notice of the loss to the insurer.  Markel and Schmitz are only relevant to the majority’s decision if this is so.
  2. It’s hard to understand why the plaintiff would agreed on this point, or why both parties had the misapprehension that cause of action accrual was determinative of the commencement of the limitation period. My guess is that the policy (which mysteriously wasn’t part of the record) contained a provision that the insured had two years from the loss to sue, which is reasonably common.  However, this kind of term has nothing to do with cause of action accrual, it just operates to vary the basic limitation period by making it run in all circumstances from a fixed date.
  3. This decision could have wonky implications. Insurers will undoubtedly rely on it as standing for the principle that the limitation period for a coverage action, certainly when coverage is under a CGL policy but probably also under other policies as well, commences presumptively on the date the insured gives notice of its loss.  This is certainly not the bar’s current understanding as it’s seemingly entirely at odds with the decision in Kassburg. 
  4. Fortunately, it will be possible to distinguish Nasr on the grounds that the limitations analysis flowed from the parties’ agreement as to cause of action accrual, and that such an agreement can have no precedential value. I think this argument will generally prevail, given both Kassburg and the decision’s ambiguity about what happened on February 1, 2013 that resulted in accrual.  However, the right limitations argument very often doesn’t prevail, and I see the potential for a body of dubious caselaw until the CA revisits the issue and, one hopes, distinguishes Nasr into irrelevance.  It’s not helpful that the Nasr court said that Markel and Schmitz supported the parties’ accrual analysis.  It’s easy to imagine a lower court considering that conclusive of the issue.
  5. Lastly, one quibble with the dissent’s statement about cause of action accrual:

[66]      As the moving party on the motion for summary judgment, the insurer had the onus to prove all of the elements that found the basis for its limitation claim, including the date when the cause of action arose, i.e. the date when the act or omission by the insurer caused the injury to the insured: see the definition of “claim” in s. 1 of the Limitations Act, 2002, S.O. 2002, c. 24, Sched. B, and ss. 4 and 5.

The moving party did not bear the onus of establishing when the cause of action arose, but when the Claim arose.  The Limitations Act doesn’t tie the commencement of time to cause of action accrual, and the language “cause of action” doesn’t appear in the Limitations Act.  The cause of action was breach of contract.  A breach of contract is actionable per se and the cause of action doesn’t require damage to accrue.  The Limitations Act, pursuant to s. 2, applies to claims pursued in court proceedings.  Until there is a claim, the Limitations Act won’t apply.  A claim requires both wrongful conduct and resulting damage.  Until there is damage, there is no claim, and without a claim the Limitations Act doesn’t apply.  The limitation period commences presumptively from the date of the act or omission pursuant to s. 5(2), but the precondition to the application of s. 5(2) is the application of the Limitations Act itself, and therefore the occurrence of damage.  Here the point is likely practically of little consequence, as the breach and damage occurred contemporaneously (denial of coverage resulting immediately in the plaintiff being without indemnification for its loss), but conceptually it matters very much.

All of that said, the decision does have a good summary of s. 5(1)(a)(iv) principles:

[46]      In commencing his analysis under s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Act, the motion judge properly noted the general proposition that the determination of when an action is an appropriate means to seek to remedy an injury, loss or damage depends upon the specific factual or statutory setting of each individual case: 407 ETR Concession Company Limited v. Day2016 ONCA 709 (CanLII)133 O.R. (3d) 762, leave to appeal refused, [2016] S.C.C.A. No. 509, at para. 34; Winmill v. Woodstock (Police Services Board)2017 ONCA 962 (CanLII)138 O.R. (3d) 641, leave to appeal to SCC requested, at para. 23.

[47]      However, as this court has observed, that general proposition is not an unbounded one.

[48]      First, in Markel Insurance this court confined the meaning of “appropriate” to “legally appropriate”. Writing for the court, Sharpe J.A. stated, at para. 34:

This brings me to the question of when it would be “appropriate” to bring a proceeding within the meaning of s. 5(1)(a)(iv) of the Limitations Act. Here as well, I fully accept that parties should be discouraged from rushing to litigation or arbitration and encouraged to discuss and negotiate claims. In my view, when s. 5(1)(a)(iv) states that a claim is “discovered” only when “having regard to the nature of the injury, loss or damage, a proceeding would be an appropriate means to seek to remedy it”, the word “appropriate” must mean legally appropriateTo give “appropriate” an evaluative gloss, allowing a party to delay the commencement of proceedings for some tactical or other reason beyond two years from the date the claim is fully ripened and requiring the court to assess to tone and tenor of communications in search of a clear denial would, in my opinion, inject an unacceptable element of uncertainty into the law of limitation of actions. [Italics in original; underlining added.]

[49]      Second, in 407 ETR, Laskin J.A. noted, at para. 47, that the use of the phrase “legally appropriate” in Markel Insurance, “signified that a plaintiff could not claim it was appropriate to delay the start of the limitation period for tactical reasons, or in circumstances that would later require the court to decide when settlement discussions had become fruitless” (emphasis added).

[50]      Finally, in Presidential MSH Corporation v. Marr Foster & Co. LLP2017 ONCA 325 (CanLII)135 O.R. (3d) 321, Pardu J.A. observed that the jurisprudence discloses two circumstances in which the issue of appropriate means most often delays the date on which a claim was discovered. First, resorting to legal action might be inappropriate in cases where the plaintiff relied on the superior knowledge and expertise of the defendant, especially where the defendant undertook efforts to ameliorate the loss: at para. 26. Second, a legal action might not be appropriate if an alternative dispute resolution process “offers an adequate alternative remedy and that process has not fully run its course”: at para. 29. See also paras. 28-48; and Har Jo Management Services Canada Ltd. v. York (Regional Municipality)2018 ONCA 469 (CanLII), at paras. 21 and 34-35. In this regard, in Winmillthis court held that resort to a civil proceeding for a remedy in respect of damage flowing from an incident might not be an appropriate means while criminal proceedings in respect of the incident remain outstanding: at para. 28.

[51]      Although Presidential MSH does not purport to offer an exhaustive list of circumstances in which a proceeding might not be an appropriate means, I would observe that neither circumstance identified in Presidential MSH is present in this case. Some other factor would have to displace the s. 5(2) presumption that Nasr knew a proceeding was an appropriate means on February 1, 2013.

Ontario: the discovery provisions apply to contribution and indemnity claims

In Mega International Commercial Bank (Canada) v. Yung, the Court of Appeal held that the discovery provisions of the Limitations Act determine the commencement of the limitation period for contribution and indemnity claims.  This is an excellent, sensible decision that resolves one of the last significant (and somewhat inexplicable) uncertainties about the Ontario limitations scheme.

A refresher: Section 4 provides the basic two-year limitation period that commences on when the plaintiff discovers the claim.  Section 5(1) defines when discovery occurs.  Section 5(2) provides a rebuttable presumption that it occurs on the date of the act or omission that gives rise to the claim.  Section 15 provides that the ultimate 15-year limitation period commences on the date of that act or omission.   Section 18 provides that for the purposes of s. 5(2) and s. 15, the date when a plaintiff serves a statement of claim on a defendant is the date of the act omission that gives rise to the defendant’s contribution and indemnity claim against another alleged wrongdoer.

There were two competing constructions of s. 18.  One line of jurisprudence originating from Miaskowski (Litigation Guardian of) v. Persaud held that s. 18 prescribes an absolute two-year limitation period that commences always on the date of service of the statement of claim.  Another line of jurisprudence originating from Demide v. Attorney General of Canada et al.  held that s. 18 merely identifies the presumptive trigger date for the limitation period for contribution and indemnity claims, subject to the s. 5 discovery provisions.

I’ve long argued that Miakowski was plainly wrong, and its continued application was hard to understand.  I noted with some satisfaction the trend toward preferring the Demide construction.

The Court in Mega International essentially adopted the reasoning in Demide.  It applied the principles of statutory interpretation: the words in s .18 interpreted in their grammatical and ordinary sense do not establish an absolute limitation period.  Rather, s. 18 works “hand in glove” with the provisions of s. 5(2) and s. 15 to identify the presumptive limitation period that applies in contribution and indemnity claims.  It is not an exception to the basic limitation period in s. 4, but part of the integrated scheme established by s. 4 and s. 5.

The Court acknowledged the injustice in constructing s. 18 as imposing an absolute limitation period.  It would allow for the possibility of claims becoming statute-barred before they are discoverable.  The Court also noted the absence of any basis for recalibrating the balance between plaintiff and defendant rights the Act strikes for this particular category of claims only.

Ontario: the Court of Appeal on the evidence required for discovery

It sometimes happens that I miss notable decisions.  And so, better late than never, I draw Crombie Property Holdings Limited v. McColl-Frontenac Inc. to your attention.

These are the noteworthy aspects of the Court of Appeal decision:

1.  It recaps the standard of review for limitations analyses:

[31]      The Supreme Court of Canada in Hryniak v. Mauldin2014 SCC 7 (CanLII), [2014] 1. S.C.R. 87, at para. 81, established the standard of review on appeal of a summary judgment. The court stated that, “[w]hen the motion judge exercises her new fact-finding powers under Rule 20.04(2.1) and determines whether there is a genuine issue requiring a trial, this is a question of mixed fact and law”, reviewable only for a “palpable and overriding error”, unless there is an “extricable error in principle”. Further, the question whether a limitation period expired prior to the commencement of an action is typically a question of mixed fact and law and therefore subject to review on a “palpable and overriding error” standard: Longo v. MacLaren Art Centre Inc.2014 ONCA 526(CanLII)323 O.A.C. 246, at para. 38. A “palpable and overriding error” is “an obvious error that is sufficiently significant to vitiate the challenged finding of fact”: Longo, at para. 39.

2.  It succinctly summarises the evidentiary burden on a summary judgment motion to dismiss on the basis of an expired limitation period:

[33]      In order to obtain a summary dismissal of the action, the moving parties were required to establish that there was no issue requiring a trial about their limitation defence. The specific issue was whether Crombie’s claim in respect of the environmental contamination of its property was “discovered” within the meaning of s. 5 of the Limitations Act, 2002 before April 28, 2012.

3.  It cites Van Allen for the principle that it is reasonable discovery and not the mere possibility of discovery the causes the limitation period to commence: see para. 35
It inaccurately describes the knowledge necessary to cause discovery of a claim:

[35]      The limitation period runs from when the plaintiff is actually aware of the matters referred to in s. 5(1)(a)(i) to (iv) or when a reasonable person with the abilities and in the circumstances of the plaintiff first ought to have known of all of those matters: Longo, at para. 41. The knowledge sufficient to commence the limitations clock has been described as “subjective” knowledge or “objective” knowledge.

This paragraph appears to conflate the amount of knowledge required by s. 5 with the subjectivity of the knowledge.  A claimant requires prima facie knowledge.  This is knowledge that is greater than suspicion but less than certainty.  See for example Brown v. Wahl at 15.  Then there is question of whether the plaintiff subjectively or subjectively-objectively had this knowledge (not purely objectively, as the Court suggests in this decision, because the question asked in s. 5(1)(b) is a “modified objective” test as it doesn’t ask about the knowledge of a reasonable person, but a reasonable person with the abilities and in the circumstances of the claimant.

Knowledge of a possible wrong (a mere suspicion) is insufficient for discovery of a claim; prima facie knowledge of an actual wrong is necessary:

[42]      That the motion judge equated Crombie’s knowledge of possible contamination with knowledge of actual contamination is apparent from her statement that “[a]ll the testing that followed simply confirmed [Crombie’s] suspicions about what had already been reported on” (at para. 31). It was not sufficient that Crombie had suspicions or that there was possible contamination. The issue under s. 5(1)(a) of the Limitations Act, 2002 for when a claim is discovered, is the plaintiff’s “actual” knowledge. The suspicion of certain facts or knowledge of a potential claim may be enough to put a plaintiff on inquiry and trigger a due diligence obligation, in which case the issue is whether a reasonable person with the abilities and in the circumstances of the plaintiff ought reasonably to have discovered the claim, under s. 5(1)(b). Here, while the suspicion of contamination was sufficient to give rise to a duty of inquiry, it was not sufficient to meet the requirement for actual knowledge. The subsurface testing, while confirmatory of the appellant’s suspicions, was the mechanism by which the appellant acquired actual knowledge of the contamination.

 

Ontario: the Court of Appeal on due diligence and discoverability

In Fennell v. Deol, the Court of Appeal clarified the role due diligence plays in the discovery analysis.  It’s a fact that informs the analysis, but not a separate and independent reason for dismissing a plaintiff’s claim as statute-barred.

Fennell was in a motor vehicle accident with the defendants.  He claimed against the defendant Shergill, and subsequently amended the statement of claim to add the defendant Deol.  Shergill served a statement of defence and crossclaim against Deol.  Deol moved for summary judgment to dismiss the claim on the basis of an expired limitation period.

Fennell argued that he discovered his claim when he received a medical report and learned that he met the Insurance Act threshold.  Justice Akhtar noted that Fennell’s discovery testimony indicated awareness of the seriousness of his injuries before receiving the report.  For Fennell to rely on discoverability to delay the commencement of the limitation period, Justice Akhtar held that he had to show due diligence in discovering his claim.  Fennell did not show sufficient due diligence, and had he acted diligently, he would have discovered his claim when he commenced his action against Shergill.  Justice Akhtar dismissed Fennell’s claim.

The Court of Appeal allowed Fennell’s appeal.  Justice Akhtar made a counting error (which is very easy for lawyers to do when it comes to limitations, and here I speak from ample experience).  If Fennell ought to have discovered his claim against Deol when he sued Shergill, the claim against Deol was in fact timely.

What makes Justice van Rensburg’s decision interesting is her discussion of Justice Akhtar’s error in focussing primarily on whether Fennell exercised due diligence, and in concluding that Fennel bore the onus to show due diligence to rebut the presumption that the limitation period ran from the date of the accident  (the statutory presumption in s. 5(2) of the Limitations Act).  To overcome the presumption, Fennell needed to prove only that he couldn’t reasonably have discovered that he met the statutory threshold on the date of the accident (s. 5(1)(b)), not that he exercised due diligence.

The fact that it wasn’t possible for Fennell to discover that he met the threshold on the date of the accident was enough to rebut the presumption.

Due diligence is the core of an analysis when determining whether to add a defendant to an action after the expiry of the presumptive limitation period (and then the threshold is low), but it is neither a standalone duty nor determinative of the section 5 discovery analysis:

[18]      While due diligence is a factor that informs the analysis of when a claim ought to have reasonably been discovered, lack of due diligence is not a separate and independent reason for dismissing a plaintiff’s claim as statute-barred.

[…]

[23]      Due diligence is not referred to in the Limitations Act, 2002. It is, however, a principle that underlies and informs limitation periods, through s. 5(1)(b). As Hourigan J.A. noted in Longo v. MacLaren Art Centre Inc.2014 ONCA 526 (CanLII), 323 O.A.C. 246, at para. 42, a plaintiff is required to act with due diligence in determining if he has a claim, and a limitation period is not tolled while a plaintiff sits idle and takes no steps to investigate the matters referred to in s. 5(1)(a).

[24]      Due diligence is part of the evaluation of s. 5(1)(b). In deciding when a person in the plaintiff’s circumstances and with his abilities ought reasonably to have discovered the elements of the claim, it is relevant to consider what reasonable steps the plaintiff ought to have taken. Again, whether a party acts with due diligence is a relevant consideration, but it is not a separate basis for determining whether a limitation period has expired.