Ontario: the limitation of indefinitely available internet defamation

At issue in Torgerson et al. v. Nijem was the limitation of a claim arising from internet defamation where the impugned words remain available indefinitely.  The plaintiff argued that each day the words remain available gives rise to a new cause of action, a new claim, and a new limitation period.  Justice Schabas rejected this argument: “When a plaintiff becomes aware of a specific posting on a website, time begins to run for the purpose of applying limitation periods. To hold otherwise, and allow plaintiffs to wait indefinitely to sue simply because the libel remains available, would render limitations defences meaningless and have serious implications for freedom of expression.”.  The decision is well-reasoned and persuasive; I have no quibbles. This is the analysis:

[12]           Section 4 of the Limitations Act, 2002 creates a general limitation period of two years from “the day on which the claim was discovered.” Section 5(2) of the Act creates a presumption that the claim is discovered when the act or omission took place, “unless the contrary is proved.”  Here, the defendant’s action in publishing the defamatory statements took place on January 18 and 19, 2016, and the plaintiff became aware of them within days, and no later than the end of January, 2016. The defendant therefore submits that it is plain and obvious that the action cannot succeed as the plaintiff did not commence this action until April 23, 2018, more than two years after the actions of the defendant were known, or “discovered”, by the plaintiff.

[13]           The plaintiff, however, relies on the “multiple publication” rule, that each publication of a defamatory communication is a separate and distinct libel, subject to its own limitation period. In the context of an electronic communication or publication on the internet, the argument goes, every time a person accesses or downloads the information there is a new claim and a new limitation period applies. In my view, the plaintiff’s position misunderstands the “multiple publication” rule and how it has been applied to the internet.

[14]           The “multiple publication” rule dates back to the somewhat infamous case of Duke of Brunswick v. Harmer (1849), 14 Q.B. 185, in which a cause of action arose after the Duke dispatched his manservant to purchase a back issue of a newspaper from the publisher in order to sue for a libel first published 17 years earlier. This, it was held, constituted a republication by the newspaper, allowing the plaintiff to avoid the limitation period.  The “multiple publication” rule established in that case has been subject to criticism, especially in light of the development of the internet.  American courts have rejected it, adopting a “single publication rule” in which limitation periods begin to run from the date of first publication: see, e.g., Firth v. State of New York775 N.E.2d 463 (NY Ct App 2002); Canatella v. Van de Kamp486 F. 3d 1128 (9th Cir. 2007).  And the British have now adopted a somewhat similar approach in s. 8 of the Defamation Act 2013, (U.K.) 2013, c. 26.

[15]           The multiple publication rule continues to find acceptance in Canada: see, e.g.,Carter v. B.C. Federation of Foster Parents Assn., 2005 BCCA 398 (CanLII)Shtaif v. Toronto Life Publishing Co. Ltd., 2014 ONCA 405 (CanLII).  In this case it is not necessary to address the validity of the rule, other than to note that it may be seen as another way of expressing the “repetition rule”, where someone has chosen to repeat or re-publish a defamatory statement, as the law provides that every person who repeats a libel is liable as if he or she is the original speaker: see Downard, Libel (Lexis Nexis, 3rd Ed., 2014) at paras. 5.32–5.44.

[16]           Another form of republication is found in Breeden v. Black2012 SCC 19 (CanLII), on which the plaintiff relies. Statements posted on the internet in the United States were read, downloaded and republished by newspapers in Ontario, creating a cause of action against the American defendants in Ontario, as the tort of defamation occurs when and where the words are read by a third party, and the republication in Ontario was foreseeable as a natural and probable consequence of the posting of the statements on the internet. This does not mean, however, that every time a person reads the defamatory words in those newspapers a new cause of action arises and limitation periods can be avoided.  Applying the discoverability principle, a plaintiff must sue within two years of when he or she becomes aware of the defendant’s action in publishing the defamatory words, whether in print or on the internet.

[17]           The Ontario Court of Appeal considered republication and the multiple publication rule in Shtaif.  There, the plaintiffs had not provided notice of their intention to sue over the print article within six weeks of becoming aware of it, as required by s. 5 of the Libel and Slander Act.  However, they became aware of the internet publication later and did provide notice of it within the required time.  The plaintiffs then sought to include their complaint about the print version in their action against the magazine, relying on s. 6 of the Act which permits adding other claims for libel against the defendant that occurred within the previous year.

[18]           The Court considered and rejected applying the single publication rule, as it would be inconsistent with s. 6 of the Act. The analysis in Shtaif must be seen in the context of that case, which dealt with separate publication in two different mediums – print and online.  As the Court of Appeal observed more recently in John v Ballingall, at para. 35, Shtaif  “does not mean that each day of online publication grounds a new cause of action.”

[19]           In John v. Ballingall the plaintiff had missed the notice and limitation periods for publications by the media under the Libel and Slander Act, and argued that “for every day the defamatory words are published online, a new and distinct cause of action accrues and a new limitation period begins to run.” The Court of Appeal rejected that position, stating, at para. 35:

The appellant seeks to rely on an incorrect interpretation of the “multiple publication rule”. That concept provides that when an alleged libel is republished across different mediums, including the Internet, those republications are treated as distinct libels. In Shtaif, the court rejected the notion that the limitation period for a suit about an online magazine article starts to run when the plaintiff becomes aware of the printed version. This was the basis for the conflicting evidence on discoverability in ShtaifThis decision does not mean that each day of online publication grounds a new cause of action. The court in Vachon v. Canada Revenue Agency2015 ONSC 6096 (CanLII), expressly rejected this interpretation of Shtaif. I concur with Hackland J., who said, at para. 22:

The plaintiff argues that the alleged defamation should be taken as having been republished every day [while it] remained accessible on the internet … Shtaif does not support that proposition … any limitation period based on discoverability will run from the point where the internet defamation is discovered. [emphasis added]

[20]           The plaintiff seeks to distinguish John v. Ballingall on the basis that it only deals with notice periods under the Libel and Slander Act.  While that was the context, the case also engaged the 3 month limitation period under the Libel and Slander Act, and the same reasoning must apply.   The Libel and Slander Act simply creates a shorter limitation period, together with a notice requirement, in recognition of the special position of the media, allowing it the opportunity to publish timely corrections to minimize damage and to prepare defences when facts remain fresh.

[21]           In my view, the Court of Appeal in John v. Ballingall clearly rejected the proposition that just because defamatory words remain online and are available to be downloaded and read indefinitely, there is continuous publication allowing limitation periods to be ignored. As the Court noted, the multiple publication rule applies when something is “republished across different mediums”.  Such republications require specific acts by the publisher, or republisher, to further disseminate, or repeat, the libel, as was the case in Shtaif.

[22]           Furthermore, to give effect to the amendment in the Statement of Claim would create the potential for endless retriggering of limitation periods simply because the words remain on the internet. This would allow plaintiffs to sit on their rights until it suited them to take action, rather than sue when they become aware of the wrong. This would be unfair to defendants who would be subject to lawsuits indefinitely, and raises concerns about freedom of expression.


Ontario: Court of Appeal says (again) that r. 21 isn’t for limitations defences

The Court of Appeal’s decision in Clark v. Ontario (Attorney General) is another emphatic instruction not to bring motions for judgment on a limitations defence under r. 21:

[40]      The second problem is that the Attorney General seeks to use a r. 21.01(1)(a) motion to assert the Limitations Act defence that it has not pleaded. That rule involves the determination of a question of law raised in a pleading, and it is clear that the application of the Limitations Act is not a matter of law. This point has been made by this court on several occasions. For example, in Beardsley this court stated as follows, at paras. 21-22:

The motion to strike based on the expiry of a limitation period could only be made pursuant to rule 21.01(1)(a), which provides that a party may move for the determination of a question of law “raised by a pleading”. The expiry of a limitation period does not render a cause of action a nullity; rather, it is a defence and must be pleaded.

Plaintiffs would be deprived of the opportunity to place a complete factual context before the court if limitation defences were determined, on a routine basis, without being pleaded. Adherence to rules that ensure procedural fairness is an integral component of an appearance of justice. The appearance of justice takes on an even greater significance where claims are made against those who administer the law.

[41]      Despite these remarks, this court stated in Beardsley that it would be “unduly technical” to require a statement of defence to be delivered if “it is plain and obvious from a review of the statement of claim that no additional facts could be asserted that would alter the conclusion that a limitation period had expired”: at para. 21. To the extent that this comment created an exception, it was extremely limited in scope, as the example given makes clear: the expiry of the two-year limitation period under the Highway Traffic Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. H. 8, in connection with a claim for property damage only, in circumstances in which the panel noted that the discoverability rule clearly did not apply.

[42]      Although this court has not categorically precluded the use of r. 21.01(1)(a) on limitations matters in subsequent cases, in several cases it has sought to discourage its use. In Metropolitan Toronto Condominium Corporation No. 1352 v. Newport Beach Development Inc.2012 ONCA 850 (CanLII)113 O.R. (3d) 673, at para. 116, Laskin J.A. said that a defendant could move to strike a claim based on a limitation defence“[o]nly in the rarest of cases” if the defendant has yet to deliver a statement of defence. A fuller explanation was provided in Salewski v. Lalonde2017 ONCA 515 (CanLII)137 O.R. (3d) 762, at para. 42, in which the panel stated that “this court’s comment in Beardsley” had “likely been overtaken by the enactment of the Limitations Act, 2002”. The court in Salewski further limited the effect of the Beardsley comment by stating that it “was never intended to apply to a case that is legally or factually complex”: at para. 42.

[43]      Significantly, the panel in Salewski stated at para. 45 that, because the basic limitation period is now premised on the discoverability rule, the application of which raises mixed questions of law and fact, “[w]e therefore question whether there is now any circumstance in which a limitation issue under the Act can properly be determined under rule 21.01(1)(a) unless pleadings are closed and it is clear the facts are undisputed”.

[44]      The situation contemplated in Salewski – the close of pleadings and the absence of any factual dispute – is very narrow, and this court has continued to discourage the use of r. 21.01(1)(a) motions on limitations matters. In Brozmanova v. Tarshis2018 ONCA 523 (CanLII)81 C.C.L.I. (5th) 1, at para. 19, this court emphasized that “[t]he analysis required under s. 5(1) of the Limitations Actgenerally requires evidence and findings of fact to determine. It does not involve a ‘question of law’ within the meaning of rule 21.01(1)(a).” Justice Brown described reliance on r. 21.01(1)(a) to advance a limitation period defence as “a problematic use of the rule”, one that risks unfairness to a responding plaintiff: at paras. 17, 23.

Ontario: Court of Appeal says don’t use r. 21.01(1)(a) to advance limitations defences

In Brozmanova v. Tarshis, the Court of Appeal has brought certainty to the question of whether a defendant may advance a limitations defence in a r. 21.01(1)(a) motion.  The answer is no.   Rule 21.01(1)(a) is for the determination of questions of law.  The expiry of the limitation period is a question of fact (or mixed fact and law).  Further, evidence is not admissible without leave under r. 21.01(1)(a), which puts the plaintiff in the unfair position of needing to seek leave to admit the evidence relevant to the limitations defence when it should be admissible as of right:

[10]      The Rules of Civil Procedure make available two sets of procedural devices by which a party can seek to dispose finally of a proceeding on a contested basis.

[11]      One set is evidence-based, under which the parties adduce evidence by various means, on the basis of which the court decides whether to grant or dismiss a proceeding. The Rules permit or offer several standard evidence-based procedural devices by which to obtain such a final adjudication on the merits: (i) the conventional trial; (ii) the hybrid trial; (iii) two forms of summary judgment – rules 20.04(2)(a) and 20.04(2)(b); and (iv) a rule 38 application.

[12]      The second set of procedural devices enables a party to ask the court to determine a question of law that may dispose of all or part of a proceeding. These law-based devices include: (i) a rule 22 special case; (ii) rule 21.01(1)(a), where a question of law is raised by a pleading; and (iii) rule 21.01(1)(b), where a pleading discloses “no reasonable cause of action or defence”.

[13]      The law-based character of the devices available under rules 21.01(1)(a) and (b) is reinforced by the limits placed on the use of evidence on motions brought under those rules. No evidence is admissible on a “no reasonable cause of action” motion; nor is evidence admissible on a “question of law” motion, except with leave of the judge or on consent of the parties: rule 21.01(2).

[14]      The rationale for these prescriptions is a simple one: the allegations asserted in the pleading, which the court must accept as provable at trial, are sufficient to determine the question of law or whether the pleading discloses a cause of action or defence recognized by law: see Hunt v. Carey Canada Inc.1990 CanLII 90 (SCC), [1990] 2 S.C.R. 959, at pp. 980, 988 and 990-991. No further facts are required to determine the legal sufficiency of the claim.

[15]      In the present case, Dr. Tarshis was sued for conduct as a medical practitioner. He and Ms. Brown are represented by a law firm with long experience in representing medical practitioners. They sought to dismiss Ms. Brozmanova’s action relying on two law-based rules: 21.01(1)(a) and (b).

The “question of law” under rule 21.01(1)(a)

[16]      The “question of law” the respondents raise under rule 21.01(1)(a) is that Ms. Brozmanova commenced her action outside of the two-year limitation period.

[17]      Relying on rule 21.01(1)(a) to advance a limitation period defence is a problematic use of the rule. Some decisions of this court characterize the issue of whether a plaintiff has commenced a proceeding within the limitation period as one involving a question of fact: Pepper v. Zellers Inc. (2006), 2006 CanLII 42355 (ON CA), 83 O.R. (3d) 648 (C.A.), at para. 19; and Arcari v. Dawson2016 ONCA 715 (CanLII), 134 O.R. (3d) 36, at para. 9, leave to appeal refused, [2016] S.C.C.A. No. 522. Others describe it as involving a question of mixed fact and law: Salewski v. Lalonde2017 ONCA 515 (CanLII), 137 O.R. (3d) 762, at para. 45; and Ridel v. Goldberg2017 ONCA 739 (CanLII), at para. 12. Regardless, it does not involve a question of law.

[18]      In the basic case, the court must ascertain “the day on which the claim was discovered”: Limitations Act, 2002, S.O. 2002, c. 24, Sched. B, s. 4 (the “Limitations Act”). This, in turn, requires making two findings of fact: (i) the day on which the person first knew of the four elements identified by s. 5(1)(a)(i)-(iv) of the Limitations Act;[1] and (ii) under s. 5(1)(b), “the day on which a reasonable person with the abilities and in the circumstances of the person with the claim first ought to have known of the matters referred to in” s. 5(1)(a). The earliest of the two dates is the date on which the claim is discovered: s. 5(1).

[19]      The analysis required under s. 5(1) of the Limitations Act generally requires evidence and findings of fact to determine. It does not involve a “question of law” within the meaning of rule 21.01(1)(a).

[20]      Yet, here the respondents invoked a law-based rule to establish a largely fact-based defence. I recognize, as respondents’ counsel submits, that some jurisprudence exists that has allowed a defendant to resort to rule 21.01(1)(a) to determine its limitations defence “where it is plain and obvious from a review of a statement of claim that no additional facts could be asserted that would alter the conclusion that a limitation period had expired”: see the commentary on rule 21.01(1)(a) in Todd. L. Archibald, Gordon Killeen & James C. Morton, Ontario Superior Court Practice, 2018 (Toronto: LexisNexis Canada, 2017), at p. 1128. See also Paul M. Perell & John W. Morden, The Law of Civil Procedure in Ontario, 3d ed. (Toronto: LexisNexis Canada, 2017), at p. 611.

[21]      However, courts must always remember that permitting a defendant to move under 21.01(1)(a) to establish a limitations defence could prove unfair to a plaintiff, especially a self-represented one. By selecting rule 21.01(1)(a) as the procedural means to adjudicate its fact-based limitations defence, a defendant puts a plaintiff in the position where she cannot, as of right, file evidence to explain when she discovered her claim. Instead, she must seek leave of the court.

[22]      A plaintiff who risks the dismissal of her action on the basis of a limitations defence should not have to ask a court for permission to file evidence on the issue of when she discovered her claim. She should be entitled to do so as of right. It is unfair for a defendant to attempt, tactically, to deprive her of that right and put her to the unnecessary expense (and risk) of asking permission to do so.

[23]      Notwithstanding the jurisprudence that opens the rule 21.01(1)(a) door to some efforts to prove a limitations defence, in my respectful view such an approach risks working an unfairness to a responding plaintiff. Requiring a defendant to move under an evidence-based rule – either rule 20 (summary judgment) or rule 51.06(2) (concerning admissions of the truth of facts in a pleading) – avoids such potential unfairness and is to be preferred.

This strikes me as an excellent, well-reasoned decision.

The Court also noted that it would have been available to the defendant to move under r. 51.06(2) on the basis that the plaintiff had admitted discovery of her claim in the statement of claim:

[34]      The material facts pleaded by Ms. Brozmanova at paras. 8-9 and 15-16 of her statement of claim were admissions of the truth of certain facts. She clearly pleaded that in 2009, as a result of dealing with an insurance company on a matter regarding her ankle injury, she discovered that her OHIP record contained entries for billings by Dr. Tarshis, which she alleges were fraudulent.

[35]      Given the admissions in her pleading, it would have been open to the respondents to move on those admitted material facts to dismiss the claim on the basis that Ms. Brozmanova had discovered it in 2009 and therefore the action was statute-barred: rules 20 or 51.06(2).[3] In 2009, she knew that some “damage” had occurred within the meaning of s. 5(1)(a) of the Limitations Act because she knew that her actual position was worse than her position before: Hamilton (City) v. Metcalfe & Mansfield Capital Corporation2012 ONCA 156 (CanLII), 290 O.A.C. 42, at para. 42. That the “damage” she discovered in 2009 was not the same damage for which she sought recovery in her action – her alleged inability in 2015 to purchase travel insurance – does not matter. Knowledge of “some damage” is sufficient for the cause of action to accrue and to start the limitation period: Hamilton, at para. 61.

While I’ve not seen a limitation defence advanced using this procedure, it makes good sense for those rare circumstances where a plaintiff unwittingly pleads facts that demonstrate discovery of a claim.


Ontario: the court will rarely consider limitations defences before pleadings clsoe

In Taylor v. Workplace Safety & Insurance Board, the Court of Appeal emphasised that only in rare cases will the court hear a motion to dismiss an action as statute-barred prior to the delivery of a defence:

[22]      Thus, it is not necessary to decide whether the motion judge was correct in holding that Taylor’s claim would be barred by the two year limitation period in the Limitations Act. We do note, however, that neither defendant has delivered a statement of defence. This court has held consistently that only in rare cases, if any, will we entertain a motion to dismiss an action as statute barred under the Limitations Act in the absence of a statement of defence. See Salewski v. Lalonde2017 ONCA 515 (CanLII)137 O.R. (3d) 750, at paras. 42-46.