BC Court of Appeal Orders New Trial After Jury Dismisses ICBC Injury Claim

The BC Court of Appeal released reasons for judgement today ordering a new trial after a Jury dismissed a claim for damages as a result of a 2002 BC car accident. In doing so the BC Court of Appeal has made some helpful comments on the law relating to “adverse inference”.
When an ICBC claim is brought to trial various witnesses are called in support of the claim. Most importantly, expert witnesses (doctors and other specialists) are often called to give evidence with respect to the extent of the injuries caused by the car accident and their prognosis. If a Plaintiff fails to call one or more of his treating doctors, the ICBC lawyers can ask the judge (or jury) to draw an ‘adverse inference’. Basically, this means that the ICBC lawyer can ask the judge to draw a negative inference from the failure to call a witness who one would expect to have something relevant to say.
Typically, people injured in BC car accidents involved in ICBC claims see several different doctors. Most people have a GP, when the GP is not available they go to walk-in-clinics. Sometimes they are treated by emergency physicians and also referred to specialists by either their GP or such appointments can be arranged privately for litigation purposes.
It could be prohibitively expensive to bring an ICBC case to trial if one was required to bring every single doctor who assessed a plaintiff after a car accident to testify. Not only would this extend the length of the trial it would also add significantly to the expense as doctors are permitted to charge fees for their legal consultation services.
In this case the Plaintiff’s were a husband and wife. Their vehicle was rear-ended by a vehicle driven by the Defendant. Fault for the accident was admitted leaving the issue of damages.
At trial evidence was presented alleging that the Plaintiff’s suffered injuries to their neck, back, knees, shoulder, with headaches and other problems.
The jury outright dismissed the lawsuits, basically finding that neither of the Plaintiff’s suffered any compensable injuries in the BC car crash.
The Plaintiff’s appealed alleging that the trial judge made 4 errors in the course of the trial, namely that:

1) the trial judge erred in allowing the respondent to seek an adverse inference for failure of the appellants to call evidence from all their doctors;

2) the trial judge erred in not allowing the clinical records to go before the jury;

3) the trial judge erred in allowing the respondent to cross-examine extensively on collateral issues in regards to Mr. Buksh; and

4) the jury verdict is perverse in finding no injury to either appellant in the face of uncontradicted evidence to the contrary.
In respect of the adverse inference, here the ICBC defence lawyer argued that the jury should draw such an inference because the Plaintiff’s did not call all of the doctors who saw them after the crash. This included walk in clinic doctors and other physicians who had limited involvement in the treatment of the Plaintiff’s. The judge instructed the Jury that such an inference ‘may’ be drawn.
Our Court of Appeal ordered a new trial. In reaching this conclusion the Court of Appeal made some helpful comments about the law of adverse inference in ICBC claims in the last 10 paragraphs of the judgement which I reproduce below:

[32] It seems to me that the tactic of asking for an adverse inference is much over-used in today’s legal environment, and requires, at the least, a threshold examination by the trial judge before such an instruction is given to the jury.

[33] A judge trying a case with a jury is bound to instruct the jury as to the applicable law, and thereby to assist the jury in its consideration of the evidence and determination of the facts. Whether an adverse inference is drawn from failure to call a witness is a question for the trier of fact. In this case, I cannot say the trial judge erred in the content of the instruction she gave the jury on the matter of adverse inferences. However, it bears reminding that the delivery of medical care is not now as it was in 1964 when Mr. Justice Davey made his comments in Barker. There is, today, a proliferation of “walk-in” medical clinics where the role of the “walk-in” clinic physician may be more limited than was the role of a family physician in 1964. Further, even people who have a family doctor may attend one or more such clinics as a matter of convenience, but still rely upon their family physician for core medical advice and treatment. The proposition stated by Mr. Justice Davey does not anticipate this present model of medical care. Likewise, the discovery process available to both sides of a lawsuit is not now as it was in 1964 when, in explaining his view on the need to call all treating physicians, Mr. Justice Davey referred to the professional confidence between a doctor and the patient. Today, the free exchange of information and provision of clinical records through document discovery raises the possibility that an adverse inference may be sought in circumstances where it is known to counsel asking for the inference that the opinion of the doctor in question was not adverse to the opposite party.

[34] Taking the admonition of Mr. Justice Davey to the extreme in today’s patchwork of medical services raises the likelihood of increased litigation costs attendant upon more medical reports from physicians or additional attendances of physicians at court, with little added to the trial process but time and expense, and nothing added to the knowledge of counsel. Perhaps the idea that an adverse inference may be sought, on the authority of Barker, for the reason that every walk-in clinic physician was not called fits within the description of “punctilio” that is no longer to bind us, referred to by Mr. Justice Dickson in R. v. Sault Ste. Marie, [1978] 2 S.C.R. 1299, in a different context.

[35] In this environment, and bearing in mind the position of a lawyer bound to be truthful to the court, it seems to me there is a threshold question that must be addressed before the instruction on adverse inferences is given to the jury: whether, given the evidence before the court, given the explanations proffered for not calling the witness, given the nature of the evidence that could be provided by the witness, given the extent of disclosure of that physician’s clinical notes, and given the circumstances of the trial (e.g., an initial agreement to introduce clinical records that work contrary to the inference, or incorporation of that witness’s views or observations in the report of a witness called by the other side) a juror could reasonably draw the inference that the witness not called would have given evidence detrimental to the party’s case. Where, as here, the trial started on the basis that all records should be before the jury, and ended with a request for an instruction on adverse inferences, and when both counsel have explained the failure to call the witness or witnesses by referring to their own assessment of the utility or need for the evidence, the answer to the threshold question I have stated is not self-evidently affirmative. In this case, in my view, the judge herself should have heard the explanations, considered the degree of disclosure of that witness’s files and the extent of contact between the party and the physician, received submissions and determined whether a reasonable juror could draw the inference sought before giving the instruction to the jury for its consideration in its fact finding role. If not, the instruction had no place in her charge to the jury.

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ERIK
MAGRAKEN

Personal Injury Lawyer

When not writing the BC Injury Law Blog, Erik is the managing partner at MacIsaac & Company, based in Victoria, B.C. He is also involved with combative sports regulatory issues and authors the Combat Sports Law Blog.

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