Canada: When Is It Too Late To Sue For Environmental Contamination? The ABCA Rules

On February 6, 2019, the Alberta Court of Appeal (ABCA) released its first ever decision on section 218 of the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA), which may extend limitation periods applicable to environmental contamination claims.

By a unanimous decision in Brookfield Residential (Alberta) LP (Carma Developers LP) v Imperial Oil Limited, 2019 ABCA 35 [Brookfield], the ABCA upheld a lower court decision where the judge refused to exercise his discretion under section 218 of the EPEA to extend the limitation period for an environmental contamination claim. Extending the limitation period would have likely been prejudicial to the defendant's ability to maintain a defence to the claim, as the alleged cause of the environmental damage occurred over 60 years ago. We previously discussed the 2017 Court of Queen's Bench decision in an earlier post, When is an Environmental Contamination Claim Too Old to Extend the Limitation Period?

Background

Brookfield Residential (Alberta) LP (Brookfield) brought a negligence claim in the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench (ABQB) against Imperial Oil Limited (Imperial) for environmental contamination from an oil well. Imperial drilled and operated the well between 1949 and 1950, and disposed of it in either 1950 or 1954. Multiple owners operated the well between 1950 and 1957 and then used it for salt water disposal between 1958 and 1961, at which point the well was decommissioned and abandoned. After several additional transfers of ownership, the site was issued a reclamation certificate in 1968. Contamination requiring remediation was not discovered until 2010, when Brookfield was preparing the site for residential development.

Brookfield brought an application under section 218 of the EPEA to extend the limitation period, and Imperial cross-applied with a summary dismissal application, asserting that the limitation period had expired. Since it was clear that the ten-year ultimate limitation period under the Limitations Act had expired, Brookfield's negligence claim was entirely dependent on an extension of the limitation period under section 218. The ABQB refused to extend the limitation period and summarily dismissed the action against Imperial. Brookfield appealed.

The appeal was dismissed. In its reasons, the ABCA provided guidance on three important aspects of section 218 applications: (i) procedure and timing; (ii) the impact of the passage of time on prejudice to the defendant; and (iii) policy considerations relevant to the fourth factor in section 218(3).

1. Applications Under Section 218 of the EPEA Should Be Decided Prior to Trial

The ABCA in Brookfield ruled that applications under section 218 of the EPEA should be decided prior to trial, overruling the two-part test in Lakeview Village Professional Centre Corporation v Suncor Energy Inc, 2016 ABQB 288 [Lakeview]. In Lakeview, the ABQB set out a two-part approach to section 218 applications where the court may make a preliminary determination on limitations and allow the action to proceed subject to a final determination on the merits of the limitations issue at trial. Lakeview became the leading case on the procedure for section 218 applications.

In overturning the Lakeview test, the ABCA found two problems with the approach of deferring the decision on extending limitation periods until trial. First, the Lakeview approach "is inconsistent with the wording of section 218, which provides that the limitation period can be extended 'on application'". Second, the approach defeats the whole purpose of limitation periods because it forces a defendant to go through the expense and inconvenience of a full trial on the merits for a determination on limitations, notwithstanding that a limitation period is intended to eliminate the distractions, expense, and risks of litigation after the prescribed time has passed.

2. The Passage of Time Increases the Likelihood of Prejudice to the Defendant

The ABCA affirmed the approach of balancing the four factors in section 218(3), which in this case revolved primarily around the third factor (prejudice to the defendant). The ABCA found that it was reasonable for the ABQB to infer prejudice from the passage of time, noting that this is the presumption behind statutes of limitation. The allegations in Brookfield's claim occurred over 60 years ago, and as such, witnesses and documentary evidence were difficult to identify and were no longer available. The passage of time also made it difficult to establish the proper standard of care. The ABCA agreed that attempting to determine 1949 industry standards and the standard of care at that time would prejudice Imperial.

3. The Competing Policy Objectives of the Limitations Act and the EPEA

The ABCA also provided guidance on the fourth factor listed in section 218(3), which grants judicial discretion to consider "any other criteria the court considers to be relevant". The ABCA found that policy considerations behind limitations statutes were relevant criteria that should be weighed. In particular, the ABCA noted the policy objectives of statutes of limitations that actions must be commenced within set periods so that defendants are protected from ancient obligations, disputes are resolved while evidence is still available, and claims are adjudicated based on the standards of conduct and liability in place at the time. However, on the other hand, the ABCA highlighted that the EPEA has a "polluter pays" objective where a polluter should not escape responsibility by the mere passage of time.

Implications

The ABCA's decision in Brookfield changes the procedure for extending limitation periods in environmental contamination claims. Rather than waiting until trial, parties must bring section 218 applications early on. As a result, plaintiffs in contaminated sites claims should also carefully assess the impacts on defendants of the passage of time in making section 218 applications. Brookfield reinforces that a court will likely presume greater prejudice from a longer passage of time, especially if witnesses and evidence may be difficult to identify and the standard of care may be difficult to assess. Going forward, Brookfield suggests that the Court will take a practical approach to assessing prejudice against a defendant when deciding whether to extend limitation periods in contaminated site claims where the ultimate limitation period has passed.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Authors
Laura M. Gill
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