Ontario: the principles of mva “threshold” claims

Dimech v. Osman contains a useful summary of the limitation of claims for non-pecuniary losses arising from a motor vehicle accident:

[14]      Under s. 4(1) of the Limitations Act, 2002 a person loses the right to sue for a claim two years after she “discovers” the claim. Under s. 5(2) of the Limitations Act, 2002 a plaintiff injured in a car accident will be presumed to have discovered her claim on the day of the accident unless she proves that she did not discover the claim that day and that a reasonable person with her abilities and in her circumstances would not have discovered the claim until a later time.

[15]      While one might normally think that being injured in a car accident automatically gives one a claim or the right to sue, that is not necessarily the case. Under s.267.5(5) of the Insurance Act, RSO 1990, c I.8 a person injured in a car accident in Ontario can only sue for non-pecuniary losses if the accident caused her to suffer “permanent serious impairment of an important physical, mental or psychological function.” This is commonly referred to as the “threshold”. If a plaintiff cannot prove that her injuries meet the threshold, her claim for non-pecuniary loss will be dismissed.

[16]      While a plaintiff can sue for pecuniary loss without meeting the threshold, case law provides that for the limitation period to commence in Ontario in relation to a motor vehicle accident lawsuit in which both pecuniary

and non-pecuniary damages are claimed, the plaintiff must have known or ought reasonably to have known that she could likely meet the threshold so as to have the right to sue. In Ioannidis v. Hawkings 1998 CanLII 14822 (ON SC), Justice Langdon held that for the two-year limitation period to start running, there must be,

…a sufficient body of evidence available to be placed before a judge that, in counsel’s opinion, has a reasonable chance of persuading a judge, on the balance of probabilities that the injury qualifies.

[17]      The question of when the limitation period commences is a question of fact. See: Farhat v Monteanu2015 ONSC 2119 (CanLII), at para. 33. It requires a finding of a date when a plaintiff or her lawyer knew or ought reasonably to have known that she had a reasonable chance to prove that she suffered permanent serious impairment of an important physical, mental or psychological function as a result of the car accident.

The decision also provides an example of the consequences of failing to adduce the evidence material to the limitation of these claims:

[18]      There is no evidence from Mr. Bekiaris as to whether he, as the plaintiff’s counsel, had formed an opinion during the 37-day pre-limitation period window that the plaintiff had a reasonable chance of persuading a judge that his injuries would meet the threshold. I offered Mr. Bekiaris an opportunity to consider refraining for acting as counsel on this motion both due to this evidentiary issue and in consideration of the fact that if the defendants succeed in having this action dismissed, Mr. Bekiaris could possibly face a claim for having missed the limitation period. He determined to proceed as counsel.

 [22]      With no evidence from counsel, and no evidence of any contemporaneous prognosis from a doctor, I am left to try to determine by inference whether the plaintiff or his counsel ought reasonably to have known that his injuries reasonably could have met the threshold during the 37-day pre-limitation period window.

 [26]      The defendants argue that with the burden lying on the plaintiff to prove that he could not reasonably have discovered his claim in the 37-day pre-limitation period window, it was incumbent upon him to adduce evidence to show that he or his counsel acted with diligence by asking a doctor for a prognosis. The defendants argue that the plaintiff has failed to prove that he asked any doctor whether his injuries were likely to permanently seriously impair an important function right up to the time that the claim was issued. As such, he cannot meet his burden to show that he acted with diligence as required to rebut the presumption in s. 5(2) of the Limitations Act, 2002.

 [29]      Like the plaintiff, the defendants have adduced no evidence to establish that a reasonable person, in the first 37 days after this type of accident, suffering injuries like those of the plaintiff, would likely know that he or she is likely to meet the threshold. There is no expert prognosis. There is no evidence about whether in the 37-day pre-limitation period window the plaintiff’s counsel ought to have concluded that he had a sufficient body of evidence to provide a reasonable chance of persuading a judge that the plaintiff’s injuries will meet the threshold.

 [31]      In my view, the defendants have not met their evidentiary burden to allow me to fairly and justly adjudicate the limitation period issue summarily. While there may perhaps be cases where a plaintiff’s injuries are so severe that they can confidently be said to meet the threshold from day one, I cannot tell if this is such a case. The defendants have given me the plaintiff’s medical records. But I have nothing to allow me to draw an inference that the plaintiff or his lawyer ought to have concluded in the first 37 days after the accident that the injuries met or were likely to meet the threshold at some time in future.

 [32]      Similarly, while I was able to conclude at first instance in Yasmin that the plaintiff had not diligently pursued a claim on the facts, I have nothing to allow me to reach the same conclusion here and now. I do not know if a reasonable patient 37 days into treatment ought to have been asking his doctors for long term prognoses about serious impairment of important functions. Neither is there any evidence before me to let me weigh or conclude whether a reasonable personal injury lawyer ought to have been seeking reports from the doctors about threshold issues within the 37-day pre-limitation period window.

Ontario: MVA litigation, lawyer’s letters, and the threshold

A lawyer’s letter stating that her plaintiff client has sustained permanent injuries is not, in the context of motor vehicle accident litigation, determinative of whether the plaintiff has discovered her claim within the meaning of the Limitations Act.

The plaintiff in Schaefer v. Ayeneababa suffered injuries in a motor vehicle accident.  The defendant moved for summary judgment dismissing the action as statute-barred by an expired limitation period.

The limitation period for a claim of permanent injury and impairment under section 276.5(5) of the Insurance Act doesn’t run until there’s a sufficient body evidence:

[4]              Both sides agree, as do I, that the limitations issue that is before me can be summarily adjudicated. Both sides also agree with the proposition set out in Ioannidis[2] – that in claims of permanent injury and impairment under s. 267.5(5) of the Insurance Act,[3] the court should grant “a degree of latitude to the plaintiff before declaring that the limitation period has begun to run.” A limitation period should not begin to run with regard to a serious and permanent impairment claim:

… until there is a sufficient body of evidence  available to be placed before a judge that, in counsel’s opinion, has a reasonable chance of persuading a judge on a balance of probabilities that the injury qualifies [as a serious permanent impairment].When such a body of material has been accumulated then and only then should the limitation begin to run.[4]

The defendant took the position that the plaintiff’s lawyer, by words and actions, “made clear to the insurer that the plaintiff’s injuries were permanent and that the limitation period would expire two years after the accident”.  The defendant relied on a letter from the lawyer to the insurer:

[11]         The defendant, however, points to a letter dated May 24, 2011 from the plaintiff’s lawyer to the insurer. The lawyer advises the insurer that as a result of the accident, the plaintiff suffered injuries to her neck, shoulders, back and hips and that the physical and psychological symptoms from these injuries (such as dizziness, headaches and acute depression) “are continuing up to the present.” The lawyer also notes that the limitation date is “fast approaching” and attaches a draft statement of claim. The draft statement of claim specifically pleads “permanent and serious impairments.” The lawyer then tries to file the claim by mail but the mailed-in claim is rejected by the court. The action is properly commenced on December 2, 2011.

The defendant argued that the letter was essentially an acknowledgement that the plaintiff’s injuries were permanent on the date of the accident.

Justice Belobaba correctly rejected this argument:

[12]         The defendant says that by these words and actions the plaintiff’s lawyer in essence acknowledged that his client’s injuries were indeed permanent and that he only had until June 24, 2011 (two years after the accident) to commence the action.

[13]         I do not agree. The fact that the plaintiff’s injuries were described as “continuing” is not, in and of itself, an acknowledgement of permanency. Nor is the fact that the lawyer attaches a draft statement of claim that pleads “permanent and serious impairments.” This claim is made in almost every motor vehicle accident that results in significant injury. And, in any event, pleadings are not evidence.

[14]          The fact that the lawyer noted in his letter that the two-year limitation period is “fast approaching” says as much about his desire to file the claim within the presumptive two-year period just to be on the safe side, as it does about an admission that his client knew she sustained permanent soft-tissue injuries at the date of the accident – which is generally an impossibility and is here rebutted by the medical documentation that the lawyer reviewed.

[15]         In his affidavit, the lawyer lists the various clinical and psychological reports that he had reviewed (none of which describe the impairments as permanent) and explains that when he sent the May 24, 2011 letter to the insurer, he “did not have the necessary medical reports and records to prove [that the impairments were permanent].” It was only after requesting a medical opinion from Dr. Sequeira on October 20, 2011 and receiving the doctor’s report a month later that he “formed the opinion that the plaintiff had sustained an injury that met the requirements of s. 267.5(5) of the Insurance Act.” The lawyer commenced the action less than a month later on December 2, 2011.

Ontario: interaction of the Insurance Act and Limitations Act

Justice Akhtar’s decision in Sorita v. TTC provides a helpful summary of the interaction between the Limitations Act and the statutory threshold in s. 267.5 of the Insurance Act:

[26]      As noted earlier, Ontario’s restriction on motor vehicle accident claims is contained in s. 267.5 of the Insurance Act, which provides:

(5) Despite any other Act and subject to subsection (6), the owner of an automobile, the occupants of an automobile and any person present at the incident are not liable in an action in Ontario for damages for non-pecuniary loss, including damages for non-pecuniary loss under clause 61(2)(e) of the Family Law Act, from bodily injury or death arising directly or indirectly from the use or operation of the automobile, unless as a result of the use or operation of the automobile the injured person has died or has sustained,

(a) permanent serious disfigurement; or

(b) permanent serious impairment of an important physical, mental or psychological function.

 [27]      Ontario’s no-fault insurance scheme means that, in the Insurance Act context, the limitation clock begins to run when the plaintiff becomes aware that their injuries constitute “permanent serious impairment”. To otherwise commence an action is futile, as no evidence would have been available of a qualifying injury: Peixeiro v. Haberman, 1997 CanLII 325 (SCC), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 549, at para. 32. Additionally, the plaintiff in a motor vehicle claim is not required to commence an action before they know that they have a “substantial chance” of success: Everding v. Skrijel, 2010 ONCA 437 (CanLII), 100 O.R. (3d) 641, at para. 11. The inquiry to be undertaken is “whether the prospective plaintiff knows enough facts on which to base an allegation of negligence against the defendant”: Lawless v. Anderson, 2011 ONCA 102 (CanLII), at para. 23.

Readers of Under The Limit will know not to rely on Lawless v. Anderson when considering the commencement of the limitation period.  Contrary to the above, the inquiry is not when the claimant knows enough facts on which to base an allegation of negligence, but when the claimant ought to have knowledge of the section 5 discovery criteria, including that a proceeding is an appropriate remedy.  It always bears repeating: the words “cause of action” do not appear in the Limitations Act.