Ontario: Common law discoverability, and how it applies to the Competition Act

In Fanshaw College v. AU Optronics, Justice Grace held that the limitation period applicable to Competition Act claims is subject to discoverability. We wrote about it here.  The Court of Appeal has upheld this decision.

The appellant argued that the discoverability principle shouldn’t apply for the same reason that it doesn’t apply to section 38(3) of the Trustee Act: the limitation period is linked to a fixed event (in the case of the Trustee Act, death).  The Court rightly rejected this argument.  The limitation period in section 36(4)(a)(i) is linked to the accrual of the cause of action—the wrongful conduct—not a fixed event.  The term “conduct” in section 36(4)(a)(i) refers to the conduct giving rise to damages mentioned in section 36(1) (the statutory cause of action) and is a constituent element of the cause of action that is subject to the limitation period.

Apart from its significance to the competition bar, the decision is noteworthy because it includes a thorough discussion of the common law discoverability principle.  Common law discoverability became mostly academic in Ontario when the legislature codified it into sections 4 and 5 of the Limitations Act, but it remains relevant in certain circumstances.  I’m involved in a proceeding (ever more like Jarndyce and Jarndyce) that is subject to the previous limitations scheme and common law discoverability.

This is the Court’s discussion of discoverability:

[32]      The discoverability principle is a common law rule providing that “a cause of action arises for purposes of a limitation period when the material facts on which it is based have been discovered or ought to have been discovered by the plaintiff by the exercise of reasonable diligence”: Central Trust Co. v. Rafuse, 1986 CanLII 29 (SCC), [1986] 2 S.C.R. 147, at p. 224; see also Graeme Mew, Debra Rolph & Daniel Zacks, The Law of Limitations, 3rd ed. (Toronto: LexisNexis Canada Inc., 2016), at p. 75.

[33]      Discoverability is also an interpretive rule relevant to the construction of limitation statutes: Ryan v. Moore, 2005 SCC 38 (CanLII), [2005] 2 S.C.R. 53, at para. 23. As explained below, it provides certain presumptions for courts interpreting statutory limitation periods.

[34]      The approach for determining whether a particular statutory limitation period is subject to the discoverability principle was discussed by Twaddle J.A. in Fehr v. Jacob (1993), 1993 CanLII 4407 (MB CA), 14 C.C.L.T. (2d) 200 (Man. C.A.), at p. 206:

[T]he judge-made discoverability rule is nothing more than a rule of construction. Whenever a statute requires an action to be commenced within a specified time from the happening of a specific event, the statutory language must be construed. When time runs from “the accrual of the cause of action” or from some other event which can be construed as occurring only when the injured party has knowledge of the injury sustained, the judge-made discoverability rule applies. But, when time runs from an event which clearly occurs without regard to the injured party’s knowledge, the judge-made discoverability rule may not extend the period the legislature has prescribed.

The Supreme Court of Canada has endorsed this passage in Peixeiro v. Haberman, 1997 CanLII 325 (SCC), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 549, at para. 37, and in Ryan, at para. 23.

[35]      Ryan is the latest statement from the Supreme Court of Canada on this issue. In that decision, at para. 24, Bastarache J. concluded as follows:

Thus, the Court of Appeal of Newfoundland and Labrador is correct in stating that the rule is “generally” applicable where the commencement of the limitation period is related by the legislation to the arising or accrual of the cause of action. The law does not permit resort to the judge-made discoverability rule when the limitation period is explicitly linked by the governing legislation to a fixed event unrelated to the injured party’s knowledge or the basis of the cause of action.

[36]      The applicability of discoverability is a matter of statutory construction. The jurisprudence noted above only provides presumptions and, in Ryan, at para. 23, Bastarache J. cautioned against applying the principle automatically or “systematically without a thorough balancing of competing interests”.