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BC Court of Appeal – The Phrase Crumbling Skull is “Rarely Helpful”

Reasons were released today by the BC Court of Appeal criticizing  the phrase ‘crumbling skull’ and spelling out the analysis a Court must take when dealing with non tort related causes to a Plaintiff’s position.

In the recent case (Gordon v. Ahn) the Plaintiff was injured in a 2009 collision and was awarded $50,000 at trial.  In reaching the award the trial judge noted that the plaintiff was a ‘crumbling skull’ and further that she failed to mitigate her damages and reduced the damage assessment by some unspecified amount.  The BC Court of Appeal ordered a new trial noting the trial judge did not properly address the evidence to justify any reductions.  In discussing what is needed of a Court when deciding what position a plaintiff would be in but for the tort the following reasons were provided:

[33]        The use of the phrase “crumbling skull” to describe a plaintiff’s condition is, in any event, rarely helpful. As Major J. explained in Athey, there are no special rules or analyses that apply to claims made by plaintiffs who, before becoming victims of a tort, are affected by conditions that may deteriorate in the future. Damages are always to be assessed by reference to the situation that the plaintiff would be in but for the wrongdoing. Describing a plaintiff as coming within the “crumbling skull doctrine” does not eliminate the need for a complete analysis of the pain and suffering caused by the accident.

[34]        The judge found that there was “an inter-relationship between the pain that the plaintiff experienced from her physical injuries and her emotional or psychological problems”. He also found that her psychological problems “worsened because of the accident”. Even in cases where a plaintiff is suffering from serious chronic depression, an aggravation of the symptoms attributable to a tort is compensable: Sangha v. Chen, 2013 BCCA 267. In the present case, where the plaintiff’s symptoms were fairly minor before the accident, but developed into major depression as a result of the accident, it is clear that damages ought to have been awarded.

[35]        It is not apparent, from the judge’s reasons, whether he awarded any damages in respect of the depression brought on by the accident. Beyond referring to the “crumbling skull doctrine”, he did not undertake any analysis of the issue of damages in relation to Ms. Gordon’s emotional and psychological deterioration.

[36]        A proper analysis of the issue would have required the judge to consider the degree to which Ms. Gordon’s psychological and emotional health was damaged by the accident. Such an analysis would have required a detailed consideration of her pre-accident and post-accident mental health, as well as an assessment of the likelihood that a deterioration would have occurred even in the absence of an accident (see Laidlaw v. Couturier, 2010 BCCA 59). The judge failed, in this case, to undertake such an analysis.

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