By Richard Johnson.
On June 2, 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered its unanimous ruling in Saadati v. Moorhead, which drastically altered the manner in which Canadian courts assess damages for mental injuries suffered by a plaintiff.
Background – History of the Case
The context of the case was a car accident in New Westminster, BC, in which Mr. Saadati suffered mental injuries. In fact, the accident was the second of five in which Mr. Saadati was involved and which rendered him mentally incompetent.
The trial court that first heard Mr. Saadati’s claim awarded him $100,000 in damages for mental injury based on the testimony of lay (non-expert) witnesses to the effect that he suffered a personality change as a result of the accident. Specifically, friends and family testified that after the accident, his personality changed significantly and his relationships worsened.
This award was appealed to the BC Court of Appeal, who reversed the trial decision on the basis that damages for mental injury require that the plaintiff tender expert evidence proving that the plaintiff has suffered a “recognizable [or recognized] psychiatric illness”.
Supreme Court of Canada Findings
The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) disagreed with the Court of Appeal and reversed its decision, thereby restoring the trial judge’s damages award.
In agreeing with the trial court, the SCC made some important findings, which we expect will have a direct impact on employment law. The following summarizes these key points:
- The SCC has never required a claimant to show a recognizable psychiatric illness in order to recover damages for mental injury and to do so now would not be advantageous.
- Since plaintiffs are not absolutely required to provide expert evidence of a physical injury, it would not be appropriate to require that they prove “a recognizable psychiatric illness” to recover damages for mental Such a situation would provide less protection to those with mental injuries than those with physical injuries “for no principled reason”.
- Given the evolution of psychology and changes in recognized diagnoses over time – for example, until 1973, homosexuality was considered an actual “psychiatric disorder” – it would be perilous for the Court to firmly require that a plaintiff prove with expert evidence that s/he fits within a defined diagnosis.
- The fact that different experts will have differing opinions on diagnoses mitigate against a rigid requirement for expert evidence of a recognized psychiatric illness.
In summary, the SCC took a significant step forward in recognizing that mental health is essential to our society. At paragraph 23 of its decision, the Court stated that “[t]he loss of our mental health is a more fundamental violation of our sense of self than the loss of a finger”.
It also made clear that the courts must and will not treat mental injury differently than physical injuries. Expert evidence, while helpful and perhaps necessary in some cases, is not legally required to prove a mental injury.
Employment Law Implications
We are seeing an increasing frequency of employment cases involving allegations of bullying and harassment, which often include claims for mental distress or mental injuries.
The Saadati decision is therefore welcome news for employees pursuing such claims, as it will allow a court to consider non-expert evidence – such as evidence of one’s family, friends and co-workers about the fallout from a traumatic workplace situation – as proof of the mental injury. Furthermore, the decision is a large step in recognizing and addressing mental health concerns in Canadian society.