Lessons From the Toothbrush Case: Setting Aside An Adverse Party Notice


Last year I discussed the practice of calling a Defendant during the course of a Plaintiff’s case in chief using the adverse party provisions of the BC Supreme Court Rules.  Reasons for judgement were recently published by the BC Supreme Court, Vancouver Registry, in the highly publicized ‘broken toothbrush’ trial, addressing these and the circumstances where the Court can set aside an Adverse Party Notice.
In the recent case (Alnoor v. Colgate-Palmolive Canada Inc.) the Plaintiff alleged she was injured while brushing her teeth with a toothbrush manufactured by the Defendant.  She alleged that the toothbrush was negligently designed and sued for “substantial damages“.
In the course of the lawsuit the Plaintiff attempted to examine the President of Colgate-Palmolive Canada for discovery.   These attempts were dismissed with the Court finding that the President was not an appropriate witness to be examined in the circumstances of the case.
As trial neared the Plaintiff served an Adverse Party Notice on the Defendant requiring the president to testify at trial.   Madam Justice Wedge exercised her discretion under Rule 12-5(23) to set aside this Notice finding again that this was an inappropriate witness to be compelled at trial.  In doing so the Court provided the following reasons:

29] The recent decision of Mr. Justice Butler in Dawson v. Tolko Industries Ltd., 2010 BCSC 1384, examines the meaning and effect of these provisions in detail. He observed at para. 18 that the Court is granted only limited jurisdiction to set aside an adverse witness notice. It is only where the evidence of the person is “unnecessary” that the Court can set aside the notice.

[30] Further, as the Court noted at para. 19, it is only in a clear case that a judge should exercise his or her discretion to set aside a subpoena on the ground that the evidence is unnecessary. That is because the Court should be very cautious about second guessing the litigants concerning the benefits they may derive from calling a particular witness.

[31] I agree with those comments. However, the Court is also granted discretion under subrule (24) which provides that where an application is made to strike an adverse witness notice, the Court may make any order it considers will further the objects of the rules.

[32] As I noted earlier, Ms. Alnoor first attempted over two years ago to issue an appointment to examine Mr. Jeffery for discovery. However, the Court ruled that Mr. Jeffery was not the appropriate representative on the basis that his position in the company is strictly managerial. He has no knowledge pertaining to any of the issues arising in the litigation. Ms. Alnoor has been clear that she wants to call Mr. Jeffery, not because he has any knowledge of the issues in the lawsuit, but because he is the person within the corporation who is ultimately responsible for the corporation’s actions, its consumer safety policies, and its recall policies. She points to the various mission statements on the defendant’s website, published over Mr. Jeffery’s signature.

[33] Ms. Alnoor wishes to question Mr. Jeffery about his statement that the defendant is committed to consumer safety, about his responsibility for product safety, and its recall policies. She wants to ask Mr. Jeffery why the company did not recall the toothbrush model in question before she purchased one. Because Mr. Jeffery is the president, submits the plaintiff, he must be the one ultimately responsible to recall products and warn consumers, and she wants to question him about those responsibilities.

[34] The difficulty with Ms. Alnoor’s argument is that the evidence she seeks to elicit from Mr. Jeffery is not relevant to the proof of her claim. She has brought a negligence action against the defendant. She must establish that the defendant was negligent in the manufacture, design, and/or testing of the toothbrush such that it was defective, and that the defect caused the harm the plaintiff alleges she suffered when using it. Any acknowledgment by Mr. Jeffery that he is the person ultimately responsible for the defendant’s actions, including its recall policies, will not advance the plaintiff’s claim in any way.

[35] The identity of the person ultimately responsible and any acknowledgment by that person that he is ultimately responsible by virtue of his management position within the company is simply irrelevant to the negligence factors the plaintiff must prove in order to succeed in her claim.

[36] In the event that Ms. Alnoor does establish her claim, the corporation, not Mr. Jeffery or any other senior management person, will be held liable for the damages flowing from the corporation’s negligence. That is so whether or not Mr. Jeffery acknowledges the various responsibilities he has as the corporation president. The company will be liable whether or not Mr. Jeffery had any idea that his company was manufacturing a defective product.

[37] In short, the evidence Ms. Alnoor intends to elicit from Mr. Jeffery is not relevant to the issues in the lawsuit. Irrelevant evidence is not admissible. It is unnecessary evidence within the meaning of the Rule.

bc injury law, civil procedure, Rule 12, Rule 12-5, Rule 12-5(20), Rule 12-5(21), Rule 12-5(22)(a), Rule 12-5(23), Rule 12-5(24)

Contact

If you would like further information or require assistance, please get in touch.

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.

“Work hard, be kind and enjoy the ride!”
Erik’s Philosophy

Disclaimer