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March 23, 2011

The test for compensable psychological injury

Thank you to Jennifer Stirton for this week's contribution.

The Ontario Court of Appeal has recently confirmed that plaintiffs seeking damages for psychological injury independent of any claim for physical injury are required to show that they suffer from a “recognizable psychiatric illness”.

In Healey v. Lakeridge Health Corp., [2011] O.J. No. 231 (C.A.), the plaintiffs received notices to be tested for tuberculosis as a result of exposure to two infected patients at the defendants’ facility. The plaintiffs alleged that these notices caused them mental anxiety, depression, fear, shock, anger, distress and sleeplessness. They feared for the health and safety of friends and family and temporarily disrupted their social and family lives.

The plaintiffs admitted that the harm suffered fell short of a “recognizable psychiatric illness”. Rather, the plaintiffs alleged that the 2008 Supreme Court of Canada decision in Mustapha v. Culligan, in which the plaintiff found dead flies in an unopened bottle of water and was very upset by the idea that his family had been consuming tainted water, lowered the threshold for compensable psychological injury.

The Court of Appeal concluded that although there were some academic and judicial opinions to the contrary, there is a strong line of authority that to recover damages for psychological injury independent of physical injury, plaintiffs are required to show that they suffer from a recognizable psychiatric illness. The Court of Appeal concluded:

“As has been repeatedly stated in the case law, there are strong policy reasons for imposing some sort of threshold. It seems to me quite appropriate for the law to decline monetary compensation for the distress and upset caused by the unfortunate but inevitable stresses of life in a civilized society and to decline to open the door to recovery for all manner of psychological insult or injury. Given the frequency with which everyday experiences cause transient distress, the multi-factorial causes of psychological upset, and the highly subjective nature of an individual’s reaction to such stresses and strains, such claims involve serious questions of evidentiary rigour. The law quite properly insists upon an objective threshold to screen such claims and to refuse compensation unless the injury is serious and prolonged.”

The Court of Appeal acknowledged that the threshold for compensable psychological injury is the subject of debate and that it could be revisited on a proper factual foundation. For the moment, however, the test for compensable psychological injury remains unchanged.

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