Case In Point
The Supreme Court’s Decision on Proving Mental Injury and its Implications for Employers
Date: June 14, 2017
In a recent decision, Saadati v. Moorhead, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously held that proof of a recognized psychiatric injury is no longer necessary to award damages for mental injuries caused by negligence. Although this finding was made in the context of a personal injury case, it may have implications for employers.
The plaintiff/appellant was involved in five motor vehicle accidents over a span of six years, and was subsequently declared mentally incompetent. At issue was whether one of those accidents caused him psychological injuries for which he should receive general damages and other pecuniary damages. In considering whether the plaintiff had suffered compensable injury, the trial judge rejected the evidence from the plaintiff’s psychologist on the basis that it did not establish a psychological injury. However, the judge found the testimony of the plaintiff’s family and friends to be sufficient proof of a compensable psychological injury and awarded $100,000 as general damages for pain and suffering experienced by the plaintiff as a result of his psychological injuries. The British Columbia Court of Appeal overturned the trial judge’s decision on the basis that the evidence did not establish that the plaintiff was suffering from a medically recognized psychiatric or psychological injury to support the award of non-pecuniary damages.
In reversing the Court of Appeal’s decision, and restoring the award for general damages, the Supreme Court of Canada reiterated that liability in negligence cases is established when a defendant breaches a duty of care to the plaintiff which causes the alleged loss to the plaintiff, and for which the plaintiff is entitled to compensation. The Supreme Court stressed that, where the loss alleged by the plaintiff is a mental/psychological injury, there is no requirement in law that the plaintiff provide expert evidence of that injury or the diagnosis of a confirmed psychiatric illness. Instead, the plaintiff is expected to show that the mental upset/disturbance is “serious and prolonged and rises above the ordinary annoyances, anxieties and fears that come with living in civil society.” Finally, the Court stated that the defendant can always rebut the plaintiff’s claim of mental injury by way of their own expert evidence.
This decision is a cautionary tale for employers who face bad faith claims following a termination, as expert evidence confirming the diagnosis of the alleged injury may not necessarily be needed. Counsel must be engaged and consulted early on to ensure that the risk of liability to employers in such situations is mitigated.