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.