Canada: Limitation de responsabilité des transporteurs ferroviaires : la Cour supérieure du Québec met les points sur les « i »

Selon la Loi sur les transports au Canada (L.C. 1996, ch. 10) (la « Loi »), le transporteur ferroviaire est tenu de publier les tarifs qui s'appliquent généralement à l'ensemble des expéditions, sauf s'il a conclu avec l'expéditeur une entente communément appelée « contrat confidentiel » et que cette entente prévoit certaines limitations à sa responsabilité. La Cour supérieure du Québec a récemment déclaré, dans Ace European Group Ltd. c. Canadian National Railway Company, 2017 QCCS 2531, qu'une clause limitant la responsabilité du transporteur ferroviaire à 0,00 $ US (zéro dollar) est invalide aux termes de la Loi.

Contexte

Depuis 2003, Bombardier fait transporter chaque année par le CN entre 50 et 100 wagons de métro. Au début de 2009, le CN a accepté d'assurer le transport de deux wagons de métro entre New York et Québec. Les wagons de métro ont déraillé à la gare de triage Taschereau du CN, au Québec. L'assureur de Bombardier a versé à celle-ci près de 600 000 $ US en dédommagement et intenté une action en recouvrement contre le CN.

Le CN n'a pas contesté le montant réclamé, mais a soutenu qu'il ne pouvait pas être tenu responsable des conséquences du déraillement et que, dans tous les cas, sa responsabilité était limitée à zéro dollar en vertu du contrat confidentiel conclu avec Bombardier. Le demandeur a fait valoir que le contrat était inopposable à son égard et que la clause de limitation était illégale.

Décision

La Cour a commencé par examiner les négociations contractuelles ayant mené au contrat confidentiel . Elle a établi que Bombardier avait été dûment averti au cours de ces négociations que le CN déclinait toute responsabilité associée au transport des wagons de métro en raison de la nature exceptionnelle des marchandises transportées. Le contrat mentionnait clairement que le prix dépendait d'une « responsabilité zéro » et limitait explicitement la responsabilité du CN à  0,00 $ US (zéro dollar) (la « Clause »).

La Cour devait ensuite trancher sur la validité de la Clause au regard de l'article 137 de la Loi. Nous précisons aux lecteurs que l'article 137 de la Loi, dans sa version de 2009, prévoyait que :

137 (1) La compagnie de chemin de fer ne peut limiter sa responsabilité envers un expéditeur pour le transport des marchandises de celui-ci, sauf par accord écrit signé soit par l'expéditeur, soit par une association ou un groupe représentant les expéditeurs.

L'article 137 a été modifié en 2015 et prévoit maintenant ce qui suit :

137 (1) La question de la responsabilité de compagnie de chemin de fer relativement au transport des marchandises d'un expéditeur, notamment à l'égard des tiers, ne peut être traitée entre la compagnie de chemin de fer et l'expéditeur que par accord écrit signé soit par l'expéditeur, soit par une association ou un représentant les expéditeurs.

La Cour a fait la distinction entre les « clauses de limitation » qui fixent à un montant maximal l'indemnisation à payer en cas de responsabilité avérée et les « clauses d'exclusion » qui exonèrent de toute responsabilité. La Cour est arrivée à la conclusion que la Clause constituait une clause hybride, mais que fondamentalement, elle avait pour effet d'exonérer le CN de toute responsabilité. Elle a donc tranché que la Clause était invalide, l'article 137 de la Loi n'autorisant les parties qu'à convenir d'une limitation de responsabilité, et non d'une exclusion de responsabilité. Une clause limitant la responsabilité du CN à zéro dollar est donc une clause d'exclusion interdit par la Loi.

Par conséquent, et parce qu'elle a également jugé que le CN n'était pas arrivé à prouver qu'il n'avait commis aucune erreur ou faute au moment du déraillement, la Cour a conclu que le CN était tenu de verser au demandeur le montant intégral réclamé. Le CN a interjeté appel devant la Cour d'appel du Québec, appel qui, en date de la rédaction de cet article, est toujours en instance.

Commentaire

Il s'agit d'une cause importante pour quiconque exerce des activités dans le secteur du transport au Canada. Si cette décision est confirmée en appel, elle pourrait avoir des conséquences sur d'autres contrats confidentiels comparables existantes ainsi que sur le partage de responsabilité entre les parties, dans le cas de contrats conclus avant la modification de l'article 137, le 18 juin 2015.1 En outre, l'article 137 semble avoir été modifié d'une manière susceptible de donner plus de moyens aux transporteurs ferroviaires de « régler » leur responsabilité par voie contractuelle. Cette décision ne précise pas comment les tribunaux pourraient appliquer la nouvelle version de l'article 137 aux clauses de « responsabilité zéro » dans des contrats confidentiels à l'avenir, à part une remarque indiquant que le nouveau libellé de l'article 137 semble accorder une plus grande latitude contractuelle aux parties à un contrat confidentiel.

Footnote

1 L'article  137 de la Loi a été modifié par l'article 9 de la Loi modifiant la Loi sur les transports au Canada et la Loi sur la sécurité ferroviaire, L.C. 2015, ch. 31.

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