Causation and Foreseeability in Case v Pattison: Negligent Inspections Conducted by an Intervening Party do not Negate the Liability of a Preceding Tortfeasor

Causation and Foreseeability in Case v Pattison: Negligent Inspections Conducted by an Intervening Party do not Negate the Liability of a Preceding Tortfeasor

By: Zachary Sherman

Introduction

In the May 2023 decision of Case v. Pattison,[1] the Ontario Court of Appeal (“ the Court”) provided clarification on the foreseeability and causation analysis to be applied where an intervening party negligently performs their duty to inspect the work of a preceding tortfeasor. In conducting their analysis, the Court concluded that both parties contributed to the Plaintiff’s loss, and that the negligence of an intervening party will not negate the original tortfeasor’s liability.

Background

The Facts

On the evening of January 15, 2015, the Plaintiff was walking across a road in Milton, Ontario when he was struck by the Defendant’s vehicle.  The Plaintiff alleged that he sustained catastrophic injuries as a result of the accident, and that his injuries were caused by inadequate street lighting due to a missing luminaire.[3]

The Plaintiff and the Defendants claimed damages against the Town of Milton (“the Town”) for their failure to identify and rectify the missing luminaire. The Town consequently brought a third-party claim against Milton Hydro, alleging that they negligently removed the luminaire.[4]

Motion for Summary Judgment

Denying any wrongdoing, Milton Hydro brought a motion for summary judgment to dismiss the Town’s third-party claim. After conducting an analysis on duty of care and causation, the Motion Judge concluded that there was insufficient proximity to establish a duty of care owed by Milton Hydro to the Plaintiff.[5] The Motion Judge therefore granted Milton Hydro’s motion for summary judgment.[6]

Specifically, the Motion Judge held that, given the four year period between the date of Milton Hydro’s alleged removal of the luminaire and the date of the accident, along with intervening annual inspections conducted by the Town, the accident was not reasonably foreseeable at the time the luminaire was removed.[7] The Motion Judge also found that Milton Hydro owed no ongoing duty of care to the Plaintiff or the Town, concluding that the Municipal Act conferred sole responsibility on the Town to ensure the adequacy and operation of street lighting.[8]

These findings led the Motion Judge to rule that any chain of causation which may have existed between Milton Hydro’s negligence and the Plaintiff’s injury was broken, precluding the possibility that Milton Hydro could share any liability for the Plaintiff’s injuries.[9]

The Town appealed the Motion Judge’s decision.

On Appeal

On appeal, the Court agreed with the Town that the Motion Judge’s analysis was flawed. The Court proceeded to undertake its own duty of care and causation analysis in deciding to overturn the Motion Judge’s dismissal of the third-party claim.

The Court was critical of the Motion Judge’s reasoning, finding that she had conflated the duty of care analysis with the analysis for legal causation.[10]

Instead of focusing her analysis on whether, at the time of the luminaire’s assumed removal, someone in Milton Hydro’s position ought reasonably to have foreseen the harm it could have caused, the Motion Judge considered whether the luminaire removal in fact and in law caused the harm in issue.[11]

This conflation of concepts led the Motion Judge to reason that there could be only one sole tortfeasor who caused the harm suffered by the Plaintiff.[12] This view overlooked the fact that multiple independent parties can owe a duty of care to a Plaintiff.[13]

The Court reasoned that Milton Hydro’s removal of the luminaire could be considered an ongoing contributing cause to the inadequate lighting, which can coexist with the Town’s allegedly negligent inspections.[14] In other words, it would be unjust to compel the subsequent tortfeasor to assume responsibility for the preceding tortfeasor’s negligence in this instance.

Relying on the reasoning of the Alberta Court of Appeal in Ostash v. Sonnenberg and  the Court in Dominion Chain Co. Ltd v. Eastern Construction Co., the Court held that “a subsequent failure to inspect does not automatically and necessarily remove liability from the original negligent actor.”[15] Accordingly, the Town’s alleged negligence in the provision of their inspections does “not necessarily negate the foreseeability of harm arising from Milton Hydro’s removal of the luminaire.”[16]

Addressing the Motion Judge’s reasoning that the passage of time prevented the Plaintiff’s injury from being reasonably foreseen by Milton Hydro, the Court held that “the passage of time by itself does not necessarily determine foreseeability or proximity under the duty of care analysis or the causation and intervening act analysis.”[17]

The Court confirmed that the correct approach to this question is to determine whether the Plaintiff’s injury was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of removing the luminaire at the time of its removal, irrespective of when the accident occurred in relation to the removal of the luminaire.[18]

Pursuant to this analysis, the Court allowed the Town’s appeal and remitted the third-party claim for trial.[19]

Implications

Intervening Inspections May Not Break the Chain of Causation

The Court’s decision in Case suggests that generally, tortfeasors will not be absolved of liability where an intervening party has a duty to inspect the tortfeasor’s work. This holds true even where the duty to inspect is imposed by statute.

Therefore, parties who contract with municipalities cannot escape liability solely because the municipality bears ultimate responsibility for the adequacy of the work.

The Court’s reasoning in Case may have implications for private parties as well. For example, where a general contractor has assumed responsibility for the adequacy of a construction project, this will not extinguish the liability exposure of a subcontractor that was negligent in the provision of their services.

The Passage of Time Between a Tortfeasor’s Negligence and a Plaintiff’s Injury Does Not Necessarily Negate Foreseeability

The Court’s foreseeability analysis in Case suggests that tortfeasors cannot rely solely on the passage of time to deny foreseeability of the harm caused by their negligence.

By rejecting the defence that the passage of time extinguishes the liability of the original tortfeasor, the Court confirms that parties need not contemplate the precise time that their negligence may cause harm to another party. Rather, foreseeability can be established where harm can be reasonably foreseen as a result of the tortfeasor’s negligence, irrespective of when such harm may be sustained in relation to the tortfeasor’s negligence.

Therefore, a preceding tortfeasor is likely barred from denying liability on the grounds that an intervening inspector ought to have rectified their negligent conduct due to sufficient passage of time.

Conclusion

Case v. Pattinson demonstrates that the negligence of an intervening party will not negate the original tortfeasor’s liability. Parties should be cautious not to assess causation and foreseeability with a narrow lens, particularly where multiple parties may have contributed to causing the loss. Any and all negligent parties can and should be held accountable for the harm they contributed to causing, and the apportionment of said liability remains proper subject matter for a court to determine at trial.

 

[1] Case v. Pattison, 2023 ONCA 529.

[2] Ibid at para 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid at para 7.

[6] Ibid at para 9.

[7] Ibid at para 7.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid at para 8.

[10] Ibid at para 19.

[11] Ibid at para 20.

[12] Ibid at para 21.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid at para 22.

[15] Ibid at para 23.

[16] Ibid at para 24.

[17] Ibid at para 26.

[18] Ibid at para 27.

[19] Ibid at para 29.

 

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