Further to my recent posts on BC civil sexual assault claims addressing limitation periods and vicarious liability, I will now address another topic in this unique area of law – the assessment of non-pecuniary damages.
“Non-pecuniary damage” is the legal phrase that describes compensation for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life. When a person is harmed at the hands of others, be it intentionally or negligently, the harmed individual is usually able to claim compensation for their losses including for non-pecuniary loss. Some of the factors that go into valuing non-pecuniary loss in British Columbia are discussed here.
Historically there was no ceiling in the amount of money that could be awarded to an injured plaintiff for non-pecuniary loss in Canada. This changed, however, in 1978 when the Supreme Court of Canada heard a “Trilogy” of cases and handed down a significant decision which held that there should be a cap on Canadian awards for non-pecuniary damages. Specifically the Canadian high court held that “Save in exceptional circumstances…an upper limit of non-pecuniary loss” should be set at $100,000.
This cap on non-pecuniary damages has been the subject of much criticism and recent court challenges, however, none of this has resulted in change. Unless there is legislative intervention or a reversal by the Supreme Court of Canada this cap will continue to remain in place. This figure has been subject to inflation and now, in 2010, the rough upper limit is set at approximately $320,000.
With that introduction out of the way that brings me to today’s topic. Does this ceiling for non-pecuniary damages apply to civil sexual assault cases? The answer is no and this was made clear by the BC Court of Appeal in a case named S.Y. v. F.G.C.
In the S.Y case the Plaintiff was the victim of sexual abuse. At trial a Jury awarded her $650,000 including $350,000 for non-pecuniary and aggravated damages. This amount greatly exceeded the Canadian cap on non-pecuniary damages which was at $260,000 at the time.
The Defendant appealed arguing that non-pecuniary damages in sex assault cases are caught by the trilogy therefore the Jury’s award was in excess of what was permitted by law. The BC Court of Appeal disagreed with this submission and made it clear that in British Columbia victims of sexual abuse are not caught by the Canadian cap on non-pecuniary damage awards. Specifically the Court held as follows:
I am not persuaded that the policy reasons which gave rise to the imposition of a cap in “the trilogy” have any application in a case of the type at bar…The policy considerations which arise from negligence causing catastrophic personal injuries, in the contexts of accident and medical malpractice, do not arise from intentional torts involving criminal behaviour…A cap is not needed to protect the general public from a serious social burden, such as enormous insurance premiums. Insofar as damage awards may be so high as to be wholly erroneous, or wholly disproportionate, an appellate court may intervene to correct disparity, and to foster consistency…In some cases, sexual abuse victims may require and deserve more than the “cap” allows, due to the unpredictable impact of the tort on their lives. Judges, juries and appellate courts are in a position to decide what is fair and reasonable to both parties according to the circumstances of the case.
Just as with limitation periods and the principles of vicarious liability, the law of non-pecuniary damages in sexual assault claims in BC recognizes that these cases are unique and certain advantages are provided in prosecuting such claims in the Civil Courts.