Canada: Mann V Jeffersen: No Objective Injury? You Better Be Credible!

Last Updated: March 25 2019
Article by Fiona Brown

This decision arises from a motor vehicle accident that occurred on February 8, 2011. The trial took place in January 2019 before Trimble J. After the jury retired to deliberate, the defendants brought a motion for a declaration that the plaintiff’s injuries did not meet the threshold under section 267.5(5) of The Insurance Act.  This decision provides a useful summary of the applicable case law and the facts that will likely affect the outcome of a threshold motion.

Background

As Trimble J. stated “Mr. Mann’s case is a little more complex than others.”  The plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident on October 15, 2008 in which he injured his neck, shoulders and low back, among other things. His evidence at the trial related to his 2011 accident was that while those injuries were still symptomatic at the time of the 2011 accident, he had generally improved by 50% at that time.

The Effect of the Jury’s Verdict on the “Threshold” Motion

The defendants argued their threshold motion on January 30, 2019 while the jury was deliberating. The jury returned its verdict on February 1, 2019, awarding the plaintiff $15,000 for general (non-pecuniary) damages, $0 each for past and future income loss, past and future health care costs, and for past and future housekeeping expenses.

The question became whether, and to what extent, the trial judge may consider the jury’s verdict on a threshold motion?

While some some judges have held that threshold motions should be decided before the return of the verdict, so that there is no perception that the judge was influenced by the findings of the jury (Chrappa v Ohm, [1996] O.J. No. 1663 (S.C.J.), others have held that the trial judge may consider the verdict on the threshold but is not bound by it (Bishop-Gittens v Lim, 2016 ONSC 2887 (S.C.J.).

Trimble J. determined that the jury’s verdict does not determine threshold and it is not binding (Jugmohan v Royale, 2015 ONSC 1497 (S.C.J.) (CanLll) especially where the finding depends on credibility (Kasap v MacCallum, 2001 Can Lll 7964 (ONCA).  His Honour went on to state:   “The trial judge may not abandon to the jury his or her statutorily imposed duty to make findings of fact necessary to decide the threshold.”

The Role of Credibility (Where there are no Objective Signs of Injury)

As in any personal injury action, proof of the plaintiff’s claimed injuries and impairments come from the plaintiff’s own subjective evidence. In this case, Trimble J. found that the plaintiff’s credibility was a key issue and “the success of the threshold motion (if not the entire action) may hang upon it.”

In his reasons, Trimble J. stated that plaintiffs generally lose threshold motions where the plaintiff is an unreliable historian, gives contradictory evidence, is not candid with his doctors, gives inaccurate or incomplete information to doctors, does not follow doctors’ recommendations, where surveillance clearly contradicts the plaintiff’s report of pain, injury and disability, and/or the plaintiff’s performance as a witness shows him to be argumentative and uncooperative (Rajic v Atking, 2011 ONSC 1024 (Can Lll) and Smith v Declute, 2012 ONSC 3308 (CanLll).

Result

Trimble J. allowed the defendants’ motion and held that the plaintiff had not met his burden to establish, on a balance of probabilities, that he suffered a permanent, serious impairment of an important bodily function. Accordingly, he was barred from recovering damages for health care costs and non-pecuniary general damages.

The Reasons

With the exception of Dr. Berbrayer, all doctors accepted that the plaintiff had no objective signs of injury on examination.   Because no other doctor supported Dr. Berbrayer’s view and all doctors diagnosed the plaintiff based on his subjective complaints, his credibility was critical to the threshold motion. Interestingly, but for one instance, Trimble J. found the plaintiff to be honest and trustworthy. The one exception related to the plaintiff’s post 2011 income. The plaintiff claimed that, following the accident, to survive financially he had borrowed from credit cards and lines of credit, took out loans, and relied on money his children were giving him. According to Trimble J. “the picture was of a man scrambling, financially, to maintain his household.”

This “picture” was not accurate as, on cross-examination, the plaintiff admitted that in March 2013 he had settled his accident benefits claims (for both his 2008 and 2011 accidents) for $125,000, in 2018 he had sold some rental property netting over $400,000 from that sale, and the home he and his wife were living in had a value of about $800,000 with a remaining mortgage of only $112,000.  The plaintiff had been making his mortgage payments from 2008 to 2019 on both the rental property and his home.  The fact that he received $125,000 in March 2013 and $400,000 only six months before the start of the trial was important to Trimble J. who found that “this could hardly have slipped his mind.”

The plaintiff was also found to be an unreliable historian. What he told one doctor about his state of health and function was often at odds with what he told another doctor.  The contractions were described as “significant.”   For example, he reported numerous pain complaints including headaches, severe neck pain, shoulder pain, arm pain, hand pain, leg pain, arm numbness, leg numbness, mid-back pain, and fatigue. Yet, he gave a much reduced injury list to other doctors and his reports to various doctors were not consistent. He told one doctor he lost consciousness in his accident, yet makes no mention of this to other doctors. He reported a shift in pain from his right to his left arm, to one doctor, but to no one else. He told some doctors that he no longer did any activities around the house which contradicted his evidence at trial.

Further, following his 2011 accident, the plaintiff applied for CPP disability benefits. In his application, he provided statements in support of his claim where he reported that he stopped working following his prior accident, in 2008, and made no mention of the 2011 accident that was the subject matter of the trial. He also reported limited function and abilities which related to the 2008 accident, and not the 2011 accident, contrary to his evidence at trial and to most of his doctors.

The defendants had commissioned surveillance video footage showing the plaintiff walking for 49 minutes with no signs of difficulty or the need to stop to rest. A second video showed the plaintiff grocery shopping, alone, lifting 3 L bags of milk from the refrigerator into his buggy, pushing the buggy out to his car, unloading the bags into the trunk and back seat of his car, and carrying some of the bags into his home. Later the plaintiff was seen entering his garage, retrieving a gasoline powered lawn mower, using the pull cord to start it, and mowing his front lawn for about 20 minutes. He pushed, pulled and turned the lawnmower without any difficulty. A few moments later he was seen dragging the hose around the back yard and hosing down lawn furniture. At no time did he show any signs of discomfort.

Trimble J. held that the plaintiff’s unreliability as a historian undermined the opinions of the doctors who testified on his behalf (Drs. Berbrayer and Getahun). Further, both doctors conceded that they accepted the history and complaints the plaintiff gave them and that much of their opinion depended on the plaintiff’s credibility. And, importantly, the plaintiff’s doctors were not given copies of the surveillance.

The Test

The plaintiff’s position is that his chronic pain since his 2011 accident has created a serious permanent impairment of an important bodily function.

Causation

Trimble J. stated that, due to the plaintiff being an unreliable historian, he would not have found that the 2011 accident caused any injuries or aggravated any pre-existing conditions, and at a minimum, he suffered an aggravation of his neck, shoulder and lower back symptoms, originally caused by the 2008 accident. His Honour did hold that the plaintiff suffered an impairment of a bodily function as a result in the 2011 accident.

Permanent

According to Trimble J., the word “permanent” does not mean “forever.”  The impairment must last into the indefinite future as opposed to a predicted time period, with a definite end (Brak v Walsh, 2008 ONCA 221 (CanLll).  In this case, it was held that the plaintiff failed to meet his onus of establishing that the aggravation of his 2008 injuries in the 2011 accident was permanent.  This decision was based on the fact that His Honour did not find the plaintiff’s doctors, Drs. Berbrayer and Getahun reliable and preferred the evidence of the defendant’s doctors, Drs. Czok, Chang and Finkelstein. Their views were accepted:  at best, the plaintiff suffered a temporary aggravation of his 2008 accident related neck, shoulder, and back injuries in the 2011 accident and the aggravation would have lasted not more than 8 to 12, or 14 to 20 weeks after the 2011 accident.

Important

To determine the importance of the bodily function in issue one must ask “Is it one that plays a major role in the health, general well-being, and way of life of the plaintiff?”   This is a subjective analysis and what must be considered is whether the injured person, as a whole, and the effect which the bodily function involved has upon the person/s way of life (Vandenberg v Montgomery, [1999] O.J. No. 2789 (S.C.J.) and Ahmed v Callenger, [2002] O.J. No. 4188 (S.C.J.).

Trimble J. did find that the functions that were impaired (the plaintiff’s ability to do work around the house or to go to the Temple often) were important to his life and wellbeing as it existed at the time of the 2011 accident and, therefore, were important.

Serious

To determine whether the impairment is “serious” the court is required to consider the seriousness of the impairment to the person, as opposed to the injury in isolation (Mayer v 14744879 Ont. Inc., 2013 ONSC 6806 (CanLll) and Mohammed v Lafleur-Michelacci, [2000] O.J. No. 2476 (S.C.J.).  Further, the impairments must go beyond the tolerable.  Interference may be frustrating and even unpleasant, but if it does not go beyond tolerable it is not serious (Frankfurter v Gibbins, (2004) CanLll 45880 (ON SCDC) and Branco v Allianz Ins. Co. of Can., [2005] O.J. No. 3056 (S.C.J.).

In this case, the court did not find that the plaintiff had met the burden or proving, on a balance of probabilities, that his impairment was serious as defined in the legislation and case law, as compared to his condition immediately before the 2011 accident.  The notes of the plaintiff’s family doctor showed little change in his condition before and after this accident.

The Take Away

This decision is a reminder when a plaintiff has not suffered any objective injuries, his or her credibility is key. Surveillance, in such situations, should definitely be arranged and, if helpful, used at trial. The defence should consider bringing a threshold motion in cases where there are inconsistencies between the plaintiff’s discovery evidence, what the plaintiff reports to various doctors, and the plaintiff’s evidence at trial, as this case suggests there will be a relatively strong chance of success in such situations.

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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