A decision was released today by the BC Court of Appeal addressing personal injury lawsuits and Judges duties to address credibility issues in their reasons for judgement.
In today’s case (Mariano v. Campbell) the Plaintiff was injured in a 2006 BC motor vehicle collision. The Plaintiff apparently suffered from chronic soft tissue injuries as a result of this crash. At trial her claim was successfully prosecuted and she was awarded close to $115,000 for her damages (You can click here to read my post summarizing the trial judgement).
During trial the Plaintiff’s credibility was put squarely at issue with the defense lawyer cross examining the Plaintiff with previous statements in which she stated that her injuries recovered shortly after the collision. The trial judge dismissed these challenges and found that the Plaintiff was a ‘very credible‘ witness. The Defendant appealed the judgement arguing that the trial judge “made palpable and overriding errors in assessing the plaintiff’s credibility‘. The BC Court of Appeal agreed and found that the judge failed to “seize the substance of the critical issues” and ordered a new trial.
It is very unusual for a trial judge’s findings to be overturned on the issue of witness credibility. In reaching this decision the BC High Court said the following about a judge’s duty to give reasons for judgement explaining how they assessed credibility:
38] This appeal concerns assessments of witness credibility and findings of fact. It is well-settled that an appellant court must exercise great restraint in reviewing such matters. They are properly the province of the trial judge. In the absence of palpable and overriding error, this Court must defer to the findings of fact of a trial judge (Housen v. Nikolaisen, 2002 SCC 23,  2 S.C.R. 235).
 The function of a trial judge in determining credibility, and the limited role of appellate courts in respect of credibility findings were discussed by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. R.E.M., 2008 SCC 51,  3 S.C.R. 3:
…what is required is that the reasons show that the judge has seized the substance of the issue…The degree of detail required in explaining findings on credibility may also, as discussed above, vary with the evidentiary record and the dynamic of the trial. The factors supporting or detracting from credibility may be clear from the record. In such cases, the trial judge’s reasons will not be found deficient simply because the trial judge failed to recite these factors.
 This case involved a soft tissue injury. Because of the lack of purely objective evidence for such injuries, the evidence in support of the plaintiff’s case necessarily derived solely from her own reports of her injuries – either to the court, to her doctors, or (to a lesser extent) to her work colleagues. In the circumstances, the plaintiff’s credibility was critical to the judge’s assessment of the case. …
 In the case before us, then, a critical issue was whether the plaintiff’s evidence at trial about the course of her recovery was credible. To make that determination, the judge had to examine the plaintiff’s various statements and the other evidence.
 It is my view that the reasons for judgment do not demonstrate that the judge “seized the substance of the critical issues”. There are several indications that she did not do so.
 The trial judge’s treatment of the application for insurance and the applications to the colleges is also problematic. The documents, as previous statements by the plaintiff, were admissible for the truth of their contents. Indeed, strong arguments can be advanced for accepting the documents as true, particularly given the evidence of Dr. Darby in cross-examination. The judge, however, does not appear to have considered the possibility that the documents were truthful in stating that the plaintiff had fully recovered by March 2007. Instead, her reasons suggest that she assumed that the statements to the insurer were false, and that their only value was in respect of an assessment of the plaintiff’s general credibility. She dismissed them as being of little moment in that assessment. She did not even mention the statements in the applications to the colleges…
 In my view, the reasons are problematic. The fact that the plaintiff continued to work despite her symptoms does not, on the face of it, have any relationship to her veracity. The issue in this case was not whether the plaintiff was exaggerating symptoms, or even whether she experienced pain at work at the time of trial. Rather, it was whether her pain had been ongoing since the time of the accident.
 Similarly, the plaintiff’s emotional reaction to her neck problems had no bearing on the question of whether she was being completely forthright with the court in respect of the course that her pain took.
 I conclude that, looked at in their entire context, the reasons do not suggest that the trial judge “seized the substance of the critical issues”. She did not deal with important contradictions in the evidence, and appears to have misapprehended or ignored parts of the cross-examinations of the plaintiff’s witnesses. This constitutes the kind of error that compels this Court to set aside her order.