"Psychological Disturbance" Not Compensable Even With Presence of Physical Injuries

Important reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Supreme Court, Campbell River Registry, discussing the law for compensation for psychological injuries following a motor vehicle collision.  In short the Court held that “psychological disturbance” not meeting the level of a recognized psychiatric illness is not compensable in BC, even in the presence of accident related physical injuries.
In today’s case (Schulze v. Strain) the Plaintiff, who was 4 years old at the time, was involved in a serious motor vehicle collision in 2007.  The Plaintiff was a passenger in a vehicle with his family.  The vehicle was involved in a collision at approximately 50 kmph and the force of impact was “considerable“.  Despite the severity of the collision the Plaintiff suffered minor injuries which made a full and complete recovery.
In addition to the physical injury, the young plaintiff suffered “psychological disturbance” with the Court finding that the Plaintiff was “emotionally upset…was having nightmares….did not want to travel in a car…(and was) reluctant to talk about the accident“.   Although the Plaintiff was emotionally effected the consequences were not severe enough to cause a recognized psychiatric illness.  The Plaintiff asked for damages in the range of $25,000 – $30,000 arguing that this is a fair range for a “moderate psychological injury”.
Mr. Justice Halfyard disagreed and ruled that mere “psychological disturbance” cannot be compensated in British Columbia even in circumstances where the Plaintiff suffers accident related physical injuries.  Specifically the Court reasoned as follows:

[32]         Having accepted the evidence of Jan’s parents and the evidence of Dr. Ness, I conclude that Jan was extremely frightened by his anticipation of the collision, and then experiencing the collision. Quite naturally, this was fear for his own safety, a fear of being seriously injured. That fear manifested itself in the physical symptoms and the changes in behaviour which I have previously described. Most of his symptoms had subsided within six months. I have found that Jan’s fear of travelling in a motor vehicle had diminished to the point of mere dislike, within about a year of the accident.

[33]         The evidence does not establish that Jan’s psychological disturbance amounted to a recognized psychiatric illness. While I am satisfied that Jan’s psychological disturbance was significant and far above being trivial, I am also not persuaded that the degree and duration of his emotional disturbance supports the conclusion that he sustained “a serious and prolonged injury.” (That was the lesser test which was argued by the plaintiffs in Kotai v. Queen of the North, but which was rejected by Joyce J.)

[34]         In Kotai v. Queen of the North, Mr. Justice Joyce analysed the law in detail in paragraphs 24 through 77 of his reasons. The conclusions that he expressed at paragraphs 64, 69, and 77, if accepted, would be fatal to Jan’s claim for damages for psychological injury. In the opinion of Joyce J., the law requires a plaintiff who advances a claim for psychological injury in circumstances similar to the present case, to prove that he suffered such serious psychological consequences as a result of the defendant’s negligence that they amounted to a recognized psychiatric illness. Counsel for the plaintiff submitted that I did not have to follow Joyce J’s reasoning and that I could properly conclude that proof of a recognized psychiatric illness was not an essential element of liability in the present case.

[35]         I do not accept that submission. Mr. Justice Joyce’s decision was a careful and reasoned decision. He considered numerous authorities in the course of reasoning to his conclusion, and it is not suggested that there were relevant authorities that were not cited to him. Having regard to the long-standing principle established in Re Hansard Spruce Mills Ltd., [1954] 4 D.L.R. 590, I conclude that I should follow the reasoning of Mr. Justice Joyce in Kotai v. Queen of the North.  In my opinion, the cases relied on by counsel for the plaintiff have been superseded by subsequent authorities.

[36]         In my opinion, the law does not permit me to award damages to Jan for the psychological disturbance caused to him by the defendant’s negligence. As I see it, damages may only be awarded for the minor physical injury suffered by Jan as a result of the collision.

[37]         I award damages in the amount of $1,500 to Jan for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.

bc injury law, Mr. Justice Halfyard, Psychological Disturbance, psychological injuries, Schulze v. Strain

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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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