In Saadati v. Moorhead, a unanimous decision released this past June, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) clarified what is required to prove a mental injury in tort (i.e. civil wrong) cases. In short, the SCC confirmed that there is no requirement to demonstrate a “recognized psychiatric illness” in order to obtain damages for mental injury caused by negligence. Instead, it is sufficient to provide evidence of a “serious and prolonged disturbance that rises above ordinary annoyances, anxieties and fears” in order to establish mental injury.

What Happened?

Between 2003 and 2009, the appellant (Mr. Saadati), a truck driver, was involved in five motor vehicle accidents and sustained a number of injuries. Mr. Saadati alleged that the second accident (which occurred in 2005) caused mental injuries for which he sought non-pecuniary damages and remuneration for wage losses from being unable to work for two years following the accident. The respondent (Mr. Moorhead) admitted his liability, but opposed Mr. Saadati’s claim for damages.

Lower Court Decisions

At trial, the trial judge concluded that “although the particular medical cause of the psychological injury is not known” the testimony from Mr. Saadati’s friends and family about a change in his behavior following the accident was sufficient to establish psychological injuries including “personality change” and cognitive difficulties such as slowed speech”. Mr. Saadati was awarded $100,000 for non-pecuniary damages.

The original trial decision was later overturned by the British Columbia Court of Appeal, which found that Mr. Saadati had not demonstrated a medically recognized psychiatric or psychological injury, and that “absent expert medical opinion evidence, a judge is not qualified to say what is, or is not, an illness”.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal’s decision, and restored the decision of the original trial judge, stating that “a finding of legally compensable mental injury need not rest, in whole or in part, on the claimant proving a recognized psychiatric illness”. All that is required to prove a mental injury is “a serious and prolonged disturbance that rises above ordinary annoyances, anxieties and fears.”

The Court emphasized that the most important factors are the symptoms suffered by the person making the claim (i.e. the plaintiff), and the effect of those symptoms, not the diagnosis. Furthermore, all that is required to show that the defendant caused the mental injury is proof that he or she could have foreseen the injury. The mental injury is open to rebuttal by expert evidence brought by defendant.

What Will This Mean Going Forward?

Prior to this decision, individuals with mental injuries had to prove they were suffering from a medically recognized psychiatric injury. Now, a victim claiming mental injury can be awarded damages even if there is no diagnosis of a specific mental illness caused by someone else’s negligence.

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