A motor vehicle accident can leave you with permanent physical, mental, and emotional injuries. This can affect every aspect of your daily life going forward. In some cases an accident may leave you unable to continue working and force you into an unplanned early retirement.
In all cases, you have to be able to prove your injuries. But how can you do that when they are real but subjective, as with mental or emotional injuries that don’t manifest physically? A recent decision of the B.C. Court of Appeal addressed that question.
In Riley v. Ritsco, the Court of Appeal addresses the extent to which victims need to prove their emotional or mental injuries, as well as the connection between their accident and their decision to take an early retirement. In this case, the Court of Appeal found the trial judge imposed too high a burden on the plaintiff.
The appeals court therefore substituted its own judgment and awarded the plaintiff additional damages.
The underlying facts of the accident were not in dispute. The plaintiff was riding as a passenger in a vehicle. The defendant made a sudden left turn into the path of the plaintiff’s vehicle. The driver of the plaintiff’s vehicle was unable to avoid a collision. The Court of Appeal described the accident as “one of considerable force” that resulted in the total loss of both vehicles.
At trial in B.C. Supreme Court, the judge found the defendant “wholly responsible for the accident.” The defendant did not appeal this finding. The Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), which insured the defendant’s vehicle, was effectively the opposing party in this appeal.
The plaintiff did not seek immediate medical attention at the accident scene. Instead, he went to a clinic on the following day. He reported a number of symptoms, including headache, sore neck, back pain, and soreness in his left shoulder and left knee. The clinic prescribed him Tylenol 3 to treat his pain.
The plaintiff subsequently received physiotherapy and massage therapy treatments over the next several months, but he reported those only provided “temporary” relief of his symptoms, which continued to persist up through the date of the trial of his personal injury lawsuit five years later.
During the trial, the plaintiff presented an expert report from his doctor, who confirmed the plaintiff continued to suffer from “pain symptoms” that were “causally related to the accident.”
The doctor said that in his professional opinion, the plaintiff’s prognosis for further improvement was “poor” and that the plaintiff “will probably continue to experience difficulty performing activities that place physical forces onto his neck, back, left shoulder and left knee.” That included employment-related and household activities.
The expert did not offer any direct opinions regarding the plaintiff’s “psychological” or mental condition. And the plaintiff did not present any additional expert testimony on these issues. However, the plaintiff did testify at trial regarding his emotional state. He told the court that he was “getting short-tempered” because his work aggravated his injuries and that he experienced significant “stress” due to his inability to get “back to a normal life” following the accident.
With respect to the plaintiff’s employment, he previously worked as a maintenance millwright and machinist for School District #42 in Maple Ridge, B.C. The plaintiff held this position since 1991 and described it in court as a “premium job” for someone in his field. The plaintiff was unable to return to his job for over a year following the accident.
Eventually, he returned on a part-time (12 hours per week) basis, but did not resume full-time hours until approximately two years after the accident. By 2016, however, the plaintiff determined it was too difficult to continue working in light of his chronic pain. He was 66 years old at the time. The plaintiff said he initially planned to work until he was 70 or 71, but he opted to retire at 66.
Nobody, including the judge or ICBC, disputed the plaintiff’s truthfulness or credibility at trial. Nevertheless, the trial judge said, “Without expert evidence in the field of psychiatry or psychology, I am unable to conclude that his emotional or mental state was adversely affected by the accident or whether the changes in his social life resulted from the accident.”
For this reason, the judge limited the award of non-pecuniary damages–compensation for the plaintiff’s pain and suffering–to just $65,000, which was roughly half of what the plaintiff requested. The judge also declined to award the plaintiff any compensation for his decision to retire early because “he took no steps to determine if his employer would accommodate his partial disability so that he could work for a longer period of time.”
The plaintiff appealed these two aspects of the trial court’s ruling. ICBC defended the appeal and cross-appealed on another, unrelated issue. Before the Court of Appeal, ICBC conceded that the plaintiff was “entitled to compensation for the emotional and mental damage suffered in the accident.”
Yet ICBC maintained the trial court’s award accounted for the plaintiff’s “emotional upset and distress,” and that the judge’s statements regarding the lack of additional expert evidence simply meant he was unwilling “to find a distinct psychiatric injury” occurred.
The Court of Appeal rejected ICBC’s position and the trial judge’s holdings. Justice Harvey M. Groberman, writing for the Court of Appeal, explained the Supreme Court of Canada has “rejected the idea that mental injuries are compensable only when they manifest themselves in the form of diagnosed psychological conditions or psychiatric illnesses.”
While expert evidence may be helpful in proving some claims, Justice Groberman said there was “no legal impediment that obliges a claimant to advance expert medical evidence in order to advance a claim for mental injuries.”
As for the plaintiff’s early retirement, Justice Groberman said there was “no substantial evidence capable of sustaining the argument that [the plaintiff] could have mitigated his damages by obtaining further accommodations at work,” as the trial court and ICBC claimed.
Under the circumstances, the plaintiff was entitled to an additional $100,000 for his forced early retirement. The Court of Appeal also increased the trial court’s award of non-pecuniary damages from $65,000 to $85,000.
It is unusual for the Court of Appeal to directly substitute its judgment for that of the trial court. Cases like this illustrate the importance of holding ICBC and trial judges accountable for incorrect application of the law.
If you have been injured in a motor vehicle accident and need legal advice from a qualified Vancouver car accident lawyer, contact the Preszler Law Firm to schedule a free consultation with a member of our team today.