C.A. Upholds $500,000 Non-pecuniary Damages Award in Oil Spill Claim

crude.gif  In Westlake v. Granby Steel Tanks, the Court of Appeal reviewed the damages award made by a jury in an action arising out of an oil spill at the plaintiffs’ home. The plaintiffs were an elderly couple. Liability had been admitted shortly before trial.

Despite the absence of any medical evidence, showing that either of the plaintiffs had actually been injured by the contamination of their home, the jury awarded each of them $250,000 for general non-pecuniary damages for emotional distress and loss of enjoyment.

On appeal, counsel for the defendant argued that the Supreme Court of Canada’s cap on general damages also applied here and that although the awards were below the cap, they were sufficiently close to it as to demonstrate their unreasonableness.

The Court of Appeal declined to rule on whether the cap applies in non-personal injury cases. It went on to hold that, in any event, these awards were below the cap and that the jury could have concluded that the defendant’s negligence “virtually destroyed the respondents’ [the plaintiffs’] enjoyment of their life for many years and left the respondents at an advanced age in a position where they could never regain the enjoyment they had before the oil spill”, such that a large award of damages was warranted.

It is unfortunate that the Court chose not to express an opinion as to whether non-pecuniary general damages in cases not involving personal injury are subject to the Supreme Court of Canada’s cap (now approximately $307,000). In support of its decision on this issue, the Court of Appeal pointed to the fact that the “cap” argument had not been raised at trial.

The Supreme Court of Canada has already held, in Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto, that no cap should be imposed on general damages in defamation suits. However, the sort of claims made here (loss of enjoyment and emotional distress) are more akin to those in a personal injury action in that they are normally accompanied by claims for pecuniary damage, in which the plaintiffs can recover all proven monetary losses. It would be helpful to have some guidance from the Court of Appeal as to whether there is any limit on non-pecuniary general damages awards of the sort made in Westlake. But such guidance will have to await a future decision.

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