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ICBC Rate Hike Letter to PolicyHolders Does Not Taint Injury Claim Jury Pool

Interesting reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Supreme Court, Vancouver Registry, discussing whether ICBC should lose the right to trial by jury due to a letter they sent their policy holders blaming increased insurance rates on ‘rising injury costs’.

In today’s case (Yates v. Lee) the Plaintiff was injured in a 1998 collision.   He was 6 years old at the time.  His matter was set for trial in February, 2015 and ICBC, the insurer for the Defendant, elected to proceed via jury trial.  The Plaintiff argued that the Court should use its inherent jurisdiction to strip ICBC of their right to jury trial suggesting that the letter ICBC sent their policy holders “has tainted the jury pool by creating a real potential for bias against plaintiffs among jurors who are policy holders“.  Mr. Justice Pearlman disagreed finding there was no reason for the Court to use its inherent jurisdiction and the trial judge could deal with any suggestion of bias.  In reaching this decision the Court provided the following reasons:

[12]         Shortly after November 1, 2013, ICBC began including in the insurance renewal notices sent to each of its policy holders the following statement:

          ICBC Rate Changes:

Rising injury costs mean we’re asking the British Columbia Utilities Commission (BCUC) for 4.9% increase to Basic insurance rates. The BCUC has approved an interim rate increase of 4.9% effective November 1, 2013 and will make a final decision after a public hearing process. If a final approved rate differs from the interim rate, your Basic premiums will be adjusted for the difference, subject to the BCUC’s final Order. We are also able to reduce our optional rates to lessen the impact on you.

[13]         The renewal reminder also included a statement of the insured’s estimated total premium for the year…

[53]         Here, at best, the material filed by the plaintiff goes no further than establishing a possibility for bias on the part of some prospective jurors who are  ICBC policyholders. In addition to relying on the renewal notice itself, the plaintiff referred to Norsworthy v. Green, (30 May 2009), Victoria Registry 06 2644 (B.C.S.C.).  There, Macaulay J. commented, obiter, that every potential juror knows that ICBC funds damages awards, and that this creates the risk that prospective jurors may believe the higher an award in a given case, the greater the likelihood that their own insurance premiums may rise. Macaulay J. observed that such thinking is improper, and would, if disclosed, demonstrate bias. The plaintiff also filed newspaper and Internet articles referring to Shariatamadari v. Ahmadi (4 May 2009), Vancouver Registry S061583 (B.C.S.C.), where the trial judge’s investigation into complaints of juror misconduct revealed that one of the jurors, during deliberations, had expressed concern that a high damage award would drive up their own auto insurance rates. This material falls well short of establishing that a real potential exists in the circumstances of this case that some jurors may be incapable of setting aside any prejudice they may have as a result of the renewal notice, and deciding this case impartially, after receiving appropriate instructions from the trial judge.

[54]         Even if this court had the inherent jurisdiction to strike a jury notice for juror partiality, I would decline to exercise that jurisdiction in the circumstances of this case for the following reasons:

(a) the court is asked to find that ICBC’s communication to its policy holders through the renewal notices constitutes prejudicial pre-trial misconduct in the absence of an adequate evidentiary foundation;

(b) to grant the relief sought would skirt the challenge for cause process by having the court make a determination of juror partiality without requiring the plaintiff to satisfy both branches of the well-established test for juror partiality, and without any inquiry to determine whether particular members of the juror pool selected for this case could not serve impartially; and

(c) another decision-maker, the trial judge, has all the powers necessary to ensure trial fairness…

[59]         Chester provides further support for my conclusion that the plaintiff’s assertion of juror partiality is a matter which, if pursued, must be raised before the trial judge for determination through the challenge for cause process, rather than before a chambers judge who has neither the inherent jurisdiction to grant the relief sought, nor an adequate evidentiary foundation on which to do so.

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