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November 26, 2014

Court of Appeal Upholds $1.1 Million Jury Award

The Court of Appeal has upheld a $1.1 million damages award in a product liability case heard by a jury.

In Stilwell v. World Kitchen, 2014 ONCA 770 (C.A.), the plaintiff injured his hand when a glass pot broke while he was cleaning it.  The jury found the defendant 75% at fault and the plaintiff 25%.  Particulars of negligence included not identifying when the customer should contact the manufacturer and the warning on the box being inadequate. The jury assessed damages at $1,132,850 including $25,000 in aggravated damages.

The Court of Appeal upheld the award except for the aggravated damages.  It held that the standard of review of a jury verdict is "exceptionally high" and a jury's verdict should only be set aside where it is so plainly unreasonable and unjust that no jury reviewing the evidence as a whole and acting judicially could have arrived at the verdict.  Additionally, a jury's verdict is entitled to a fair and liberal interpretation in light of the evidence and the circumstances.  In the circumstances, there was an evidentiary basis for the jury's conclusion.

The aggravated damages award was set aside as the judge failed to advise the jury that, in order to award such damages, they had to be satisfied that any increased injury to the plaintiff had to be a result of particularly reprehensible conduct by the defendant.

This case is a good example of the high threshold a party faces in attempting to overturn a jury verdict.

November 19, 2014

No Rebuttable Presumption in Section 4 of the Occupier's Liability Act

Section 4 of the Occupier's Liability Act creates a lower standard of care where premises are "recreational trails reasonably marked as such".  A person who enters such premises is deemed to have willingly assumed all risks.  The Divisional Court has confirmed that the purpose of s. 4 is to reduce the duty of care owed by certain occupiers and attempts to thwart the legislation will not be permitted.

In Cotnam v. National Capital Commission, 2014 ONSC 3614 (Div. Ct.), the plaintiff was injured while biking on a recreational pathway.  The Commission brought a motion for summary judgment.  The motions judge dismissed the motion on the basis that there was a rebuttable presumption the plaintiff could advance at trial to dislodge the lower standard of care contained in s. 4. 

The Divisional Court disagreed.  The purpose of s. 4 is to reduce the duty of care owed by occupiers of recreational lands.  If the motion judge's decision was allowed to stand, it would undermine the purpose of s. 4.  Acting in reckless disregard of the presence of a person means "doing or omitting to do something which he or she should recognize as likely to cause damage or injury to the person present on his or her premises and not caring whether such damage or injury result".  There was no evidence the Commission acted in that manner, and in fact, there was evidence the Commission took some steps for the safety of users of the trial.

The Divisional Court allowed the appeal and dismissed the action.

November 5, 2014

The Importance of Clarity in Making Rule 49 Offers

The law with respect to r. 49 offers is increasingly complicated.  It is important for offers to be clear in order to benefit from the provisions of r. 49.  At the same time, even if an offer does not qualify as a r. 49 offer, it can be taken into consideration when a court is deciding costs.

In Elbakhiet v. Palmer, 2014 ONCA 544 (C.A.), the plaintiffs sought damages of almost $2 million dollars.  After a jury trial, they were awarded $144,013.07.  The plaintiffs made one offer of $600,000 plus costs.  The defendants made two offers, the second of which was $145,000 plus pre-judgment interest in accordance with the Courts of Justice Act plus costs.

One of the issues at the Court of Appeal was whether the defendants obtained a judgment as favourable or less favourable than their offer.  The defendants’ position was that the offer was intended to mean PJI of 5% on the entire offer (which would mean the offer exceeded the judgment).  The trial judge held that it was not clear that there was a uniform practice that 5% would be applied to the entire offer, and different rates of interest could apply to different heads of damages.  She held the defendants had not beat their offer and ordered the defendants to pay costs of almost $580,000.

The Court of Appeal held that there is no evidence of a general understanding that 5% would apply to the entire offer.  At the same time, the trial judge failed to give proper consideration to r. 49.13 which permits the court to exercise discretion and take into account any offers made.  Since the offer to settle was virtually the same as the judgment, the trial judge should have taken r. 49.13 into account.  She erred in failing to do so.

The Court of Appeal held that “it was not fair and reasonable to award the [plaintiffs] costs of almost $580,000 for a claim the jury valued at just under $145,000”.  It allowed the appeal and reduced the costs payable to the plaintiffs to $100,000.