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February 15, 2012

Court of Appeal - Striking a Jury Notice

There is an interesting recent Court of Appeal decision in which the court discusses the appropriateness of a jury notice where there is a significant pre-accident medical condition. In Placzek v Green, (January 26, 2012, Ontario Court of Appeal) the plaintiff was injured in a rear end collision. The plaintiff had suffered from "severe fibromyalgia" for many years before the accident. The defendant argued that, to the extent that the plaintiff's physical problems interfered with her life after the accident, both problems were attributable in whole or in the main to the serious pre-existing condition and not to the relatively minor accident involving the vehicle driven by the defendant.

The trial judge struck the jury at the outset of the trial and held that, with respect to damages, despite the plaintiff's prior physical problems, the injuries suffered as a result of the car accident had caused significant problems for the plaintiff. The trial judge awarded damages in the amount of $919,237.

The defendant appealed on the basis that the trial judge should not have discharged the jury and that she did not quantify the damages on the basis of a rational analysis of the evidence.

With respect to discharging the jury, the Court of Appeal pointed out that the decision to discharge a jury is a discretionary one and that the court will defer to the exercise of that discretion unless it is shown that it was exercised on a wrong principle or that the exercise in the circumstances can be properly characterized as arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable.

In this case, the trial judge dismissed the jury on the basis of the anticipated complexity of the evidence to come relevant to the damage assessment. The complexity arose out of the plaintiff's pre-existing medical condition and the need to determine the impact of that condition on the plaintiff's post accident medical condition. In addition, there was competing expert evidence relating to the plaintiff's lost income and loss of future income claims. The plaintiff was a self-employed realtor and there were several factual variables relevant to her lost income claims. Finally there was competing and somewhat complex medical, engineering and biomedical evidence.

The Court of Appeal acknowledged that the defendant had made a powerful argument in support of his position that this was not really a complicated case at all, but found that they were unable to describe the trial judge's characterization of the evidentiary complexity as arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. The Court of Appeal acknowledged that other judges might have reached a different assessment of the complexity of the evidence and declined to strike the jury, but that is not a basis upon which the trial judge's exercise of her discretion can be interfered with.

Of interest, the Court of Appeal went on to discuss other factors which the trial judge thought supported the exercise of her discretion in favor of striking the jury. For example, the Court of Appeal was of the view that the manner in which some of the evidence might be put before the jury and the advantages or disadvantages that one side or the other might have as a consequence, is irrelevant to the decision as to whether the jury should be struck before the trial started. Also, concerns about the position taken by the defendant with respect to liability could not provide any basis for striking a jury.

However, because the trial judge made it clear in her reasons that she struck the jury because of the anticipated evidentiary complexity on matters relating to damages, errors in respect of other matters considered did not taint the exercise of the trial judge's discretion.

With respect to the second ground of appeal, the defendant argued that the trial judge did not attempt to quantify the damages based on a critical assessment of the evidence, but instead simply picked a point somewhere in the middle between the various scenarios advanced by the parties. The Court of Appeal gave short shrift to that argument which apparently did not have much basis in evidence.

This case should be of some concern to defendants who believe that their cases are best determined by a jury. In most injury cases, certainly most cases which proceed to trial, there are issues relating to pre-existing medical conditions and there are issues relating to the calculation of future lost income. We certainly hope that Courts will not develop the habit of striking juries on those types of cases.

- Colin Osterberg

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