Ontario: when no investigation is a reasonable investigation


Galota v. Festival Hall Developments Limited is a noteworthy, well-reasoned limitations decision from the Court of Appeal holding that in the circumstances, it was reasonable for the plaintiff to have taken no steps to discover her claim for about five years after her injury.

The plaintiff fell off a dance stage at a bar and broke her arm.  She sued the bar and its insurer defended.  The bar then closed, and the bar’s insurer became insolvent.

After learning of the insurer’s insolvency, the plaintiff sued the bar’s landlord.  She argued that she couldn’t have discovered her claim against the landlord until examination for discovery of the bar’s representative.  It was then that she learned the landlord participated in the design and construction of the dance stage from which she fell.

The bar moved for summary judgment to dismiss the action on the basis that it was statute-barred by the expiry of the limitation period.  The bar argued that the claim against it was discoverable well before examinations for discovery.

The motion judge agreed with the plaintiff.  He found that she wasn’t put on notice of the potential involvement of the landlord in the design and construction of the dance floor until examinations for discovery, and didn’t show a want of diligence in investigating the landlord’s potential involvement before then.

On appeal, the landlord challenged the motion judge’s finding that the plaintiff exercised sufficient due diligence on the basis that she took no steps at all to investigate her claim until three and a half years after her accident.  The landlord also challenged the trial judge’s call for expert evidence on the standard of care of a solicitor prosecuting an occupier’s liability claim.

The Court of Appeal upheld the motion judge’s decision.  The Court accepted the plaintiff’s position and held that the expert evidence was not material.

Justice Laskin cited the Court’s decision in Fennell for the principle that a plaintiff’s failure to take reasonable steps to investigate a claim is not a stand-alone or independent ground to find a claim out of time.  The reasonable steps a plaintiff ought to have taken to discover her claim is merely a consideration in deciding when a claim is discoverable under section 5(1)(b) of the Limitations Act.

The record supported the motion judge’s conclusion that there were no steps the plaintiff reasonably ought to have taken that would have enabled her to discover her claim against the Landlord before her lawyer examined the bar’s representative for discovery:

[24]      In substance, the motion judge found that there were no steps Ms. Galota reasonably ought to have taken that would have enabled her to discover her claim against Festival Hall before her lawyer examined a representative of Republik in November 2009. Some may view the motion judge’s finding to be questionable. But all these cases are very fact-specific. And the motion judge’s finding is a finding of fact, which in my opinion is well supported by the record, and therefore to which we should defer: Burtch, at para. 22; Longo, at para. 38.

Some aspects of Just Laskin’s analysis will be of interest, particularly to the personal injury bar:

  • The plaintiff had no need to pursue the landlord. Her claim against the bar was an insured claim.  The bar’s insurer responded to it and appointed an adjuster to investigate.  Accordingly, the plaintiff “had every reason to believe the insurer would settle her claim or pay any judgment she obtained after a trial […] the need to pursue another party would hardly have seemed reasonable.”  It would have been unreasonable for her to foresee the insurer’s insolvency.
  • While the bar and its insurer had no obligation to notify the plaintiff about the landlord’s potential liability, their failure to do so is a practical consideration in a section 5(1)(b) analysis. The insurer’s adjuster didn’t suggest that the landlord or any other party was potentially liable for her injury.  The bar didn’t allege that the landlord bore any responsibility or take third party proceedings against it.  Prior to examinations for discovery, neither the bar nor the adjuster suggested that there had been renovations to the bar and that the landlord had involvement in them.  The Court adopted Justice Lauwers’s point in Madrid v. Ivanhoe that a naked denial of liability doesn’t trigger a duty on the plaintiff to make further enquiries:

[27]      Second, the insurer’s adjuster never suggested that Festival Hall or any other party was potentially liable for Ms. Galota’s injury. Similarly, in its statement of defence, Republik did not allege Festival Hall bore any responsibility and Republik did not take third party proceedings against Festival Hall or anyone else. Indeed, before the examinations for discovery neither the adjuster nor Republik ever suggested there had been extensive renovations of the nightclub or that Festival Hall was involved in those renovations. I do not suggest either the insurer or Republik had any obligation to notify Ms. Galota about the potential liability of Festival Hall, but their failure to do so is a practical consideration supporting the motion judge’s finding. As Lauwers J. (as he was then) said in Madrid v. Ivanhoe2010 ONSC 2235(CanLII), 101 O.R. (3d) 553, at para. 17:

  • If Ivanhoe’s insurance adjuster had advised the plaintiff that liability was being denied because another party was liable, then the plaintiff’s duty to make further inquiries would have been triggered. But, on the actual facts of this case, a naked denial of liability should not trigger a duty on the plaintiff to make further inquiries.
  • On the date of her injury, the plaintiff couldn’t have known that the landlord was an “occupier” of the bar.  Perhaps the plaintiff’s lawyer should have obtained a title search early in the litigation, but this wouldn’t have determined whether the landlord was an occupier.  This would depend on the terms of its lease with the bar. The lease was not a public document, and the plaintiff had no automatic ability to require the landlord to produce it before litigation. Even if she had obtained the lease earlier in the litigation, she could only have discovered her claim against the landlord when she applied the lease to the facts that the landlord extensively renovated the bar, and the renovations might have breached the Building CodeThe plaintiff only learned of these facts after examinations for discovery.
  • Justice Laskin found that expert evidence is not needed to decide when a claim is discoverable under section 5(1)(b).

Curiously, Justice Laskin described the test in section 5(1)(b) as objective.  This is a departure from the Court’s more accurate description of it as “modified-objective” in Ridel and Ferrara. The “reasonable person” component of the test is modified by the subjective component of “with the abilities and in the circumstances of the claimant.”  Presumably, this was just inadvertence.

The Court’s decision also includes this potentially helpful summary of certain principles of discovery under section 5:

[15]      Three points about these provisions are relevant to the submissions on appeal:

  • Section 5(1)(b) codifies the common law rule of discoverability. If s. 5(1)(b) applies, the two year limitation period will run from a date later than the date the plaintiff was injured.
  • Under s. 5(1)(b), a plaintiff “first ought to have known” of the claim when the plaintiff has enough evidence or information to support an allegation of negligence, including facts about an act or omission that may give rise to a cause of action against a possible tortfeasor: Zapfe v. Barns (2003), 2003 CanLII 52159 (ON CA), 66 O.R. (3d) 397 (C.A.), at paras. 32-33; Burtch v. Barnes Estate (2006), 2006 CanLII 12955 (ON CA), 80 O.R. (3d) 365, at para. 24. The plaintiff cannot delay the start of the limitation period until he or she knows with certainty that a defendant’s act or omission caused the injury or damage: Longo v. MacLaren Art Centre Inc.2014 ONCA 526 (CanLII),323 O.A.C. 246, at para.
  • The rebuttable presumption in s. 5(2) means that a plaintiff has the onus of showing that the rule of discoverability in s. 5(1)(b) applies: Fennell v. Deol2016 ONCA 249(CanLII), at para. 26