The decision in Longley v. General Motors of Canada will only be relevant for a few more years, but it might be important until then.
In this ruling by Mr. Justice Joseph R. Henderson, the issue was whether an action was prescribed by the two-year limitation period formerly set out in s. 206(1) of the Highway Traffic Act. (That provision has since been repealed and has been replaced by the general two-year limitation period found in the Limitations Act, 2002. However, the latter statute only came into force on January 1, 2004. The accident in this case occurred on May 23, 2001.)
The plaintiff had been injured while she was standing on the rear bumper of her GMC pickup truck in order to unpack the trunk. She claims that the tailgate mechanism malfunctioned, causing her to fall to the ground and injure her wrist.
She did not commence her action until February 8, 2006, about four and three-quarters years after the accident.
The defendants argued that the claim should be dismissed because it had not been brought within the two-year period provided for in s. 206(1) of the Highway Traffic Act. When it was in force, that section read as follows:
Subject to subsections (2) and (3), no proceeding shall be brought against a person for the recovery of damages occasioned by a motor vehicle after the expiration of two years from the time when the damages were sustained.
There were issues of discoverability argued in this case, but Justice Henderson found that the limitation period had begun to run no later than April 22, 2002. If s. 206(1) applied, the action was out of time. The key question became, therefore, whether the plaintiff’s claim was one “for damages occasioned by a motor vehicle”. His Honour held that it was not. This meant that the applicable limitation period was the six-year one contained in s. 45(1)(g) of the former Limitations Act.
(Although this was a motion for summary judgment brought on behalf of the defence, Justice Henderson not only dismissed the motion but proceeded to determine that the six-year limitation period applied.)
His Honour’s conclusion was based on his finding that the “the tailgate is not an integral part of the conveyance function of the motor vehicle….Applying the test in the Heredi case [Heredi v. Fensom, a 2002 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada], I find that the dominant feature of the claim, or the essence of the claim, is not the motor vehicle itself, but it is the tailgate and the tailgate latch mechanism. Therefore, the damages claimed in this action do not constitute damages occasioned by a motor vehicle.”
It appears to have been central to His Honour’s reasoning, that the tailgate mechanism was not integral to the conveyance function of the vehicle. Neither s. 206(1) nor Heredi explicitly make that a relevant consideration. In Heredi, the Supreme Court said that “the true intent of the statute is that ‘damages occasioned by a motor vehicle’ requires that the presence of a motor vehicle be the dominant feature, or constitute the true nature, of the claim. Conversely, claims, whether framed in contract or in tort, where the presence of a motor vehicle is a fact ancillary to the essence of the action, ought not be regarded as within the scope of that phrase.” On this basis, whether the part of the motor vehicle that is alleged to have caused the injury was integral to the vehicle’s “conveyance” function would not appear to have much relevance.
But there was another passage in Heredi that might be argued to lend some support to Justice Henderson’s approach. In Heredi, Justice Iacobucci said that courts should consider “whether the motor vehicle is acting in the character of a motor vehicle, as it were, or whether its nature as a motor vehicle is quite irrelevant to the essence of the action”.
Such an analysis could become rather metaphysical: what is the “character of a motor vehicle”? Does it cease to have that character or nature when it is parked? Still, even following such an approach, it strikes us that Justice Henderson’s reading of Heredi and s. 206(1) of the Highway Traffic Act is a liberal one.