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Tag: Expert Witness Immunity

Lawsuit Against Expert Witness Dismissed on Grounds of Witness Immunity

In British Columbia expert witnesses in litigation are granted a broad immunity in cases where they are alleged to be negligent or otherwise provide less than adequate services when testifying.  Reasons for judgement were published today by the BC Supreme Court, Vancouver Registry, applying this principle in dismissing a lawsuit against an expert witness.
In today’s case (Owimar v. Warnett) the Plaintiff was involved in several collisions and sued for damages.  In the course of the lawsuits the Defendants retained a physician who “examined the plaintiff three times, provided five medical reports from 2003 to 2013 and testified in court“.
The Plaintiff sued the Doctor and the defence counsel that retained him alleging “various kinds of fraud and negligence in their respective capacities as defence counsel and expert witness and claims that they substituted his lumbar spine x-ray taken in November 1996 with an x-ray that would disprove his claims of being injured in the MVAs.“.
The lawsuits were dismissed for various grounds with the Court noting that “the allegations advanced by the plaintiff are nothing more than wild speculation.“.  Additionally, one of the reasons dismissing the claim against the expert witness was the principle of witness immunity.  In triggering and applying this doctrine Madam Justice Murray provided the following comments:

[34]         With regard to Dr. McGraw I am satisfied that the doctrine of witness immunity applies. Under that doctrine witnesses are immune from civil liability. In addition as for expert witnesses the doctrine applies to anything they say in court as well as pre-trial activities including assessments and reports: P.(J.) v. Eirikson, 2015 BCSC 847 at paras. 21 and 25.

[35]         Our Court of Appeal recently confirmed that a professional witness who gives evidence in court is protected from civil action in 311165 BC Ltd v. Canada (A.G.), 2017 BCCA 196:

[50] It must be kept in mind that the immunities from suit that prevent claims based on evidence given in court and on bringing litigation are broad in order to protect the justice system. Witnesses should not be dissuaded from giving evidence or fettered in what they tell a court by the fear that an aggrieved person will sue them. Prosecutorial decisions must be allowed to be made in an atmosphere that is free from the chilling effects of potential civil liability. Access to the courts must not be impeded by leaving litigants in fear of being open to lawsuits brought in retaliation.

[36]         As a result of the witness immunity defence I am satisfied that the plaintiff’s allegations against Dr. McGraw will fail. Accordingly there is no genuine issue to be tried and the claim must be dismissed under Rule 9-6(5)(a).

[37]         In conclusion, having considered all of the evidence and all of the submissions I am satisfied that the action against the defendants must be dismissed as it offends Rule 9-5(1). In the alternative I am satisfied for the reasons above that the action against the defendants must be dismissed under Rule 9-6.

"Outrageous" Behavior Still Not Enough to Overcome Expert Witness Immunity

Although the  UK Supreme Court has recently stripped away at expert witness immunity the BC Courts appear reluctant to do so.  Reasons for judgement were released last week by the BC Court of Appeal addressing this.
In last week’s case (Lower v. Stasiuk) the parties were involved in a family law proceeding.  In the course of the proceeding a psychiatrist provided evidence who was found to be an “advocate” and whose actions were deemed “outrageous“.  Following this the Claimant sought to add the psychiatrist as a party and to seek special costs against him.  Both the BC Supreme Court and Court of Appeal refused to allow this noting that expert witness immunity guarded against such a remedy.  The BC Court of Appeal provided the following reasons:
[69]         It is not clear to me that the exception to witness immunity articulated in Phillips properly applies to a witness in Dr. Hay’s position.
[70]         Secondly, as noted by at least two of the justices in Jones, it has not been determined that Phillips was correctly decided.  Dr. Hay argues that Smith J. misinterpreted the Symphony case, on which he relied, and points out that in Symphony, the claim for third party costs (which was rejected by the Court of Appeal) was made on the basis that the third-party company had funded and been the “driving force” behind the defence (at 149) ? akin to maintenance.  Mr. Justice Smith expressly acknowledged that one of the bases for the claim against the third party in Symphony was that it was maintaining the action (at para. 60).
[71]         Thirdly, Dr. Hay suggests that adopting the exception to witness immunity from Phillips creates uncertainty about the boundaries of the immunity.  The evidence of the expert witness in Phillips was rejected on the basis that he breached his duty to the court by failing to view the issues objectively and straying into advocacy (see Smith J.’s reasons for judgment from the hearing in which the expert’s evidence was considered:  Phillips v. Symes (No. 1), [2004] EWHC 1887 (Ch) at para. 94).  Dr. Hay asks how an expert would know in advance what conduct could expose him to a claim for costs.
[72]         All of these reasons suggest caution in adopting the exception to witness immunity as has apparently been done in the U.K.
[73]         Another reason not to follow Phillips is that the trial judge did not have the opportunity to consider it and this Court does not have his decision on the question to review.  Were we to embark on such a change in the law at first instance, Dr. Hay’s only opportunity for an appeal would be with leave of the Supreme Court of Canada.  It is more appropriate that such a change be considered in the normal manner at first instance by a justice of the B.C. Supreme Court, followed by review by this Court.
[74]         I find no basis to interfere with the trial judge’s conclusion that witness immunity bars the father’s application to add him as a party for the purpose of assessing special costs.
[75]         It follows that I would not accede to this ground of appeal.

Expert Witnesses Stripped of Immunity From Negligence Suits in the UK

Significant reasons for judgement were recently released by the Supreme Court of the UK stripping expert witnesses of their immunity from lawsuits in negligence.  While this development is not binding in British Columbia it is noteworthy as the law in BC is often shaped or at least influenced by developments in other common law jurisdictions.
The issue of expert witness immunity is important as the outcome of a personal injury trial can largely turn on the testimony of various exeprt witnesses.  Often times there is disagreement about the extent of a Plaintiff’s injuries as between his/her treating physicians and ‘independent’ medical examiners hired by opposing parties.  If the opposing expert is negligent in providing their opinion BC Courts have held that they generally cannot be sued for any losses that follow.
The justification given for this immunity is that if experts could be sued “ there will be a chilling effect on the willingness of health care providers to deliver their necessary assistance to the Court, and to be full and frank in their opinions when doing so.”
This same rationale gave expert witnesses in the UK immunity for over 400 years.  This immunity has now been overturned by the Supreme Court of the UK in the decision of Jones v. Kaney.  In Jones, the Plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle collision.  In the course of the damages suit he was assessed by a psychologist.  After resolving his claim he sued the pscyhologist alleging she was negligent in providing her opinion.  The lawsuit was initially dismissed based on the long standing immunity enjoyed by expert witnesses.
In overturning this immunity the UK Supreme Court held that no justification had been shown for continuing  to hold expert witnesses immune from suit for breach of duty in relation to the evidence they give in court or for the views they express in anticipation of court proceedings
Given that BC’s expert witness immunity is grounded in the same logic as the UK’s was it will be interesting to see if our Courts are willing to re-visit this issue.