Knowledge Centre

Supreme Court Clarifies Evidentiary Burden for Mental Injury

September 2017 McKercher LLP, Canada

In the recent decision of Saadati v. Moorhead, 2017 SCC 28, the Supreme Court of Canada clarified the evidentiary requirements for a plaintiff to prove mental injury in a negligence claim.

Previously, it was commonly understood that establishing mental injury required proof of a recognized psychiatric illness through expert evidence establishing both the injury and causation of the mental injury.  The Supreme Court of Canada clarified, however, that it has never required claimants to show a recognizable psychiatric illness as a precondition to recover damages for mental injury.  Just as recovery for physical injury is not, as a matter of law, conditioned upon a claimant adducing expert diagnostic evidence, recovery from mental injury does not require proof of a recognizable psychiatric illness.  The Supreme Court held that the requirement some lower Courts have used for a recognizable psychiatric illness is not premised upon modern perceptions of psychiatry and mental illness.  The Supreme Court added that any concerns regarding any advancement of dubious claims for mental injury in the future are alleviated through the threshold stated in the Supreme Court of Canada’s previous decision in Mustapha v. Culligan of Canada Ltd., 2008 SCC 27.

The Saadati decision involved a Plaintiff who was driving a tractor-truck when his vehicle was struck by a vehicle the Defendant was driving. The Plaintiff sued the Defendant in negligence, seeking damages for psychological injuries, including personality change and cognitive difficulties.  The Trial Judge accepted the claim for psychological injuries, despite the Plaintiff’s failure to tender any admissible expert evidence to establish the psychological injuries. Instead of expert evidence, the Trial Judge based the award of damages for psychological injuries entirely upon the testimony of the Plaintiff’s friends and family indicating that, after the accident, the Plaintiff’s personality changed for the worse. The British Columbia Court of Appeal set aside the trial judge’s decision, holding that the Plaintiff had not proven a medically recognized psychiatric or psychological illness or condition because such an illness or condition must be demonstrated through expert medical opinion evidence.

The Supreme Court of Canada agreed with the Trial Judge, commenting that lower courts had developed law requiring that claimants alleging mental injury show that such an injury had manifested itself to an expert in psychiatry in the form of a clinically diagnosed, recognizable psychiatric illness.  The Supreme Court found the necessity of expert evidence to be unnecessarily stringent, pointing out that requiring claimants who allege one form of personal injury (mental) to prove that their condition meets the threshold of recognizable psychiatric illness through expert evidence, while not imposing a corresponding requirement upon claimants alleging another form of personal injury (physical) to show that their condition carries a certain classificatory label, is inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s previous decisions.  Further, such a requirement would afford less protection to victims of mental injury than victims of physical injury, and it would do so for no principled reason.

The Court qualified this analysis somewhat, holding that none of its findings in the Saadati case should be taken as suggesting that expert evidence cannot assist in determining whether or not a mental injury has been established in a given case.  In assessing whether a claimant has succeeded, it will often be important to consider, for example, how seriously the claimant’s cognitive functions and participation in daily activities were impaired, the length of such impairment, and the nature of effect of any treatment.  To the extent that claimants do not adduce relevant expert evidence to assist a court in applying these and any other relevant considerations, any such claimants run a risk of being found to have fallen short in their claim.

The result is that, while relevant expert evidence will often be helpful in determining whether the claimant has proven a mental injury, it is not strictly required as a matter of law.  Where a psychiatric diagnosis is unavailable, it remains open to a Court to find that a plaintiff has proven a mental injury based on other evidence.  It also remains open to a defendant to call expert evidence rebutting the alleged mental injury or causation of the alleged mental injury.

The Saadati decision will be important for defending personal injury claims, as it eliminates the previously widely-held understanding that a successful claim for mental injury required that claimants suffer a recognizable psychiatric illness, and that proof of the recognizable psychiatric illness must be done through expert evidence.  It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court of Canada’s clarification of the evidentiary requirements for mental injury will lead to an increase in the frequency and success of such claims.

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