Civil Suit Barred by Findings at Criminal Trial (Even Though Plaintiffs Did Not Participate)

[UPDATE: On May 29, 2008, the Court of Appeal allowed an appeal from this decision. The Court’s reasons can be accessed here.]

Polgrain Estate v. The Toronto East General Hospital, a decision of Mr. Justice Thomas R. Lederer, considered the question of whether findings made at the trial of a sexual assault charge should preclude a civil suit arising out of the same incident. His Honour concluded that it would be an abuse of process to permit the civil action to go forward.

The sexual assault charge was against a nurse, employed by the Toronto East Hospital. He was alleged to have assaulted a woman who was a patient there for a few months prior ot her death. At the trial, Laforme J. acquitted the accused, finding that not only had the Crown failed to prove its case, but that the alleged assaults had never taken place.

Justice Lederer reviewed the law regarding abuse of process and noted that Canadian courts had used the principle to prevent relitigation even where the strict requirements of res judicata or issue estoppel were not met.

The plaintiffs (representing the estate of the deceased) argued that acquittals in criminal cases are inadmissible in civil actions. However, Justice Lederer considered that the paramount consideration should be the protection of the integrity of the judicial system. It was simply unacceptable to him, that a judge hearing the civil trial would be in a position to come to the opposite conclusion about events at the hospital as had Laforme J. He viewed this suit as an attempt to relitigate those findings.

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