BC: When it comes to death, there is no temporal elasticity (at least for limitation periods)

Generally, the discovery rule won’t extend a limitation period tolled by a fixed event like death; for these limitation periods there is, in the words of the Ontario Court of Appeal, “no temporal elasticity” (See Waschkowski v. Hopkinson Estate at paras. 8 and 9). In Buhr v. Manulife Financial, the BC Court of Appeal affirmed this principle by finding that the discovery rule can’t extend the limitation period applicable to claims against an insurer for death benefits.

Burh claimed against her deceased husband’s insurer for death benefits. On appeal, the insurer argued that the expiry of the limitation period in section 65 of the former Insurance Act barred the claim.

Section 65 provided that “proceedings against an insurer for the recovery of insurance money must not be commenced […] more than 6 years after the happening of the event on which the insurance money becomes payable”.

The Court accepted the insurer’s argument:

[T]he limitation period in this case began to run from the date of Mr. Mattern’s death, regardless of when Ms. Buhr became aware of potential claims. The event on which the insurance money becomes payable, contemplated in s. 65 of the former Insurance Act, is death in cases involving death benefits. The statute designates a fixed event, unrelated to the plaintiff’s knowledge of a cause of action, to start the limitation period, requiring commencement of an action within six years. The discoverability rule does not operate to extend the prescribed period.

In 2012, section 76 of the current Insurance Act replaced section 65. It provides as follows:

76 (1) Subject to subsections (2) and (5), an action or proceeding against an insurer for the recovery of insurance money payable in the event of a person’s death must be commenced not later than the earlier of

(a) 2 years after the date evidence is furnished under section 73, and

(b) 6 years after the date of the death.

The explicit reference to the date of death in section 76(1)(b) means that the discovery rule cannot extend this limitation period. Although the claimant in Buhr evidently required more than six years to bring her claim, six years is three times as generous as the two year limitation period in Ontario’s Trustee Act, which also begins to run from the date of death. I acknowledge that she is unlikely to find this aspect of Canadian limitations jurisprudence consoling.