July 6th, 2017

In Saadati v. Moorheard, 2017 SCC 28 the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) decided that proof by an expert of a recognized psychiatric illness is not a precondition to recovery for psychological injuries. The plaintiff need only show serious and prolonged disturbance that is more than ordinary emotional upset or distress.

In this case, the plaintiff was involved in five motor vehicle accidents from 2003 to 2009. The plaintiff claimed numerous injuries as a result of the accidents, including serious psychological injuries. He was declared mentally incompetent in 2010, and his claim was continued by a litigation guardian. At first instance, the trial judge rejected the claim for physical injury arising from the accident, but found that the testimony of the plaintiff’s family and friends was sufficient proof of psychological injury which included a personality change and cognitive difficulties. Consequently, the judge awarded $100,000 for non-pecuniary damages. However, this decision was overturned by the British Columbia Court of Appeal (BCCA). In the BCCA’s view, the plaintiff had failed to demonstrate a medically recognized psychiatric or psychological injury to support the award of non-pecuniary damages.

In reversing the BCCA, the SCC explained that recovery for mental injury in negligence does not require proof of a specific recognized mental illness. According to the SCC, the plaintiff need only demonstrate a serious and prolonged disturbance that is more than ordinary emotional upset or distress (i.e. rising above ordinary annoyances, anxieties and fears). The Court emphasized “the trier of fact’s inquiry should be directed to the level of harm that the claimant’s particular symptoms represent, not to whether a label could be attached to them.” Indeed, to require the threshold of “recognizable psychiatric illness”, while not imposing a corresponding requirement upon claimants alleging another form of personal injury ( i.e. physical) would be to accord less protection to victims of mental injury. However, according to the SCC, it remained open to a defendant, in rebutting a claim, to call expert evidence establishing the accident could not have caused any known psychological or psychiatric injury.

Importantly, the SCC in Moorhead also indicated that the courts will likely construe a plaintiff’s pleadings liberally when determining whether they are sufficient to suggest a psychological or psychiatric injury claim. In Moorhead, the plaintiff’s pleadings did not expressly refer to psychological, psychiatric mental or emotional injury, but only “such further and other injuries as may become apparent through medical reports and examinations, details of which shall be provided as they become known; and the effects or results of the said injuries upon the Plaintiff include headaches, fatigue, dizziness, nausea and sleeplessness.” The SCC held that the broad heads of damages alleged in the plaintiff’s pleadings were sufficient to put the defendant on notice of the plaintiff’s claim. According to the SCC, while courts should not decide cases on grounds not raised, in claims for negligently caused psychological or psychiatric injury it is generally sufficient that the pleadings allege some form of such an injury.

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