Tag: Tenhunen v. Tenhunen

A Costs Argument That "Ought Not To Have Been Made"

Reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Supreme Court, Victoria Registry, criticizing a costs argument advanced by defense counsel after failing to best the Plaintiff’s formal settlement offer at trial.
In today’s case (Tenhunen v. Tenhunen) the plaintiff was injured when she tripped and fell on a deficient ramp constructed by the Defendant.  At trial both were found equally to blame for the incident.  Prior to trial the Plaintiff made a formal settlement offer of $80,000.  The Defendant did not accept this and the trial damages awarded amounted close to $125,000.
The Plaintiff sought post offer double costs but the Defendant opposed arguing, in part, that the Defendant was of modest means.  The court, suspicious of this argument asked about whether the claim was insured to which Defence counsel refused to answer citing the Code of Professional Conduct.  Plaintiff’s counsel then “provided a copy of the policy of insurance that the defendant was obliged to produce” which led to the following judicial criticism of the defence argument and an award of partial post offer double costs –

[27]        The defendant’s principal argument is based on Rule 9-1(6)(c), as she points to her own unfortunate circumstances, subsisting barely on a disability pension, and contrasts this to the far better financial position enjoyed by the plaintiff, who had been employed on an income between $77,000 and $101,511 in the five years between 2009 and 2013. The defendant argues that this financial disparity militates against an order for double costs. This submission, bearing in mind the evidence at trial, raises a logical question of insurance coverage.

[28]        The plaintiff and defendant are mother and daughter, respectively. They were and are close. The defendant ordinarily lives in the rented house where the plaintiff fell and suffered her injury, and from the photographs submitted into evidence, that residence would not suggest an ability to pay substantial damages. It is unlikely in the extreme that the plaintiff would sue her daughter, and proceed to trial, if the only prospects of recovery were limited to the defendant’s disability pension.

[29]        While the defendant’s straightened finances would argue against her being able to afford insurance premiums, those same financial constraints would argue more strongly against the defendant being able to afford to retain senior counsel for the entire action, or to offer to settle her mother’s claims for $80,000 all-inclusive on October 30, 2014. I recognize that an offer to settle is not a guarantee of payment, as it would simply have entitled the plaintiff to enter judgment for the amount of the offer, had she accepted it. In these circumstances, however, the plaintiff would have every reason to know that her daughter had no ability to pay the amount offered from her own funds.

[30]        The defendant’s argument under Rule 9-1(6)(c) made the question of insurance relevant to the costs issue, and by memorandum to counsel I invoked Rule 7-1(4) and asked if there were a policy of insurance to which the defendant could turn for indemnity. The Rule provides:

Despite subrule (3), information concerning the insurance policy must not be disclosed to the court at trial unless it is relevant to an issue in the action.

[31]        Counsel for the defendant replied to this question in this way:

Finally, and more on the basis of a footnote, the Court has inquired as to whether there is a policy of insurance that the Defendant may look to for indemnification of damages and Costs. It would be entirely inappropriate for defence counsel to make any submission as to whether Ms. Kim Tenhunen may or may not look to a policy of insurance for indemnification. Defence counsel has a dual retainer in the circumstances and owes an obligation to both the Defendant and to an insurer not to compromise their respective interests: Professional Conduct Handbook, Chapter 6.4(a-d).

[32]        The Code of Professional Conduct for British Columbia (BC Code) replaced the Professional Conduct Handbook on January 1, 2013. I have examined the previous rule cited by counsel, and see nothing there to prevent the disclosure requested. I have examined the BC Code, with the same results.

[33]        The most charitable interpretation of counsel’s argument is that it is hypothetical. Even on that assumption, it still does not respond to the question posed under Rule 7-1(4), and that is whether the existence of a policy of insurance is relevant to the costs issue, and, if it is, whether there is a policy of insurance available to the defendant in this case.

[34]        How a lawyer’s duties are supervised by the Law Society – to both an insurer who retains the lawyer and the insured on whose behalf the lawyer acts under the retainer – have little to do with the question raised in this application. Nothing in the question put to counsel could raise a risk of dividing counsel’s loyalties to an insurer and insured, assuming that is the relationship that has existed.

[35]        Counsel for the plaintiff has provided a copy of the policy of insurance that the defendant was obliged to produce as part of pre-trial document discovery. The argument against double costs based on the parties’ relative financial circumstances ought not to have been made.

Deficient Wheelchair Ramp Leads to 50% Liability for Slip and Fall

Reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Supreme Court, Victoria Registry, finding a defendant 50% at fault for a slip and fall for building a wheelchair ramp which failed to comply with the BC Building Code.
In today’s case (Tenhunen v Tenhunen) the Defendant was a partial paraplegic.  She built a wheelchair ramp on her property for her own use but did not build it to code.  The Plaintiff slipped and fell on this ramp while visiting and suffered various injuries.
In finding the Defendant 50% liable for the incident due to the deficient ramp Mr. Justice Johnston provided the following reasons:

[55]         I find that the defendant failed to take reasonable care for the safety of those, including the plaintiff, who she knew or ought to have known would use the lower ramp. That failure consisted of building too much slope into the ramp, not providing a guard or handrail on the outside, and not making some effort to enhance traction between 2005 and 2011.

[56]         I do not view this as a case where the defendant is relieved from a duty of care because the plaintiff willingly assumed the risk, a defence available under s. 3(3) of the Act. The defendant has not directly argued that the plaintiff willingly assumed the risks of walking down the ramp, but may have indirectly raised the question by arguing that the plaintiff’s contributory negligence is overwhelming and by choosing to proceed down the ramp, the plaintiff was the author of her own misfortune.

[57]         In Milina v. Bartsch (1985), 49 B.C.L.R. (2d) 33 at 60 (S.C.), McLachlin J., then a judge of this court, said of the statutory defence the following :

A further defence available under the Occupiers Liability Acts of both Ontario and British Columbia, arises from the provisions of those Acts that an occupier owes no duty of care to a person in respect of risks willingly accepted by that person as his own risks: Occupiers Liability Act (B.C.), s. 3(3); Occupiers’ Liability Act (Ont.), s. 4(1). To establish such assumption of the risk, Show Producers need not prove the traditional volenti defence. The standard is considerably lower. For example, in Epp v. Ridgetop Bldr. Ltd. (1978), 8 Alta. L.R. (2d) 195 (T.D.), it was held that a person who was familiar with the circumstances so that he could recognize and avoid danger, assumed the risk of that danger, with the result that the occupier was not liable. Similarly, in Schulz v. Leeside Dev. Ltd., [1978] 5 W.W.R. 620, 6 C.C.L.T. 248, 90 D.L.R. (3d) 987 (B.C.C.A.), it was held that an occupier is not liable for dangers that are known to the user or are obvious to him or are so commonly known that it can be reasonably assumed that the user will be familiar with them. In Holman v. Ellsmar Apt. Ltd. (1963), 40 D.L.R. (2d) 657 (B.C.S.C.), the plaintiff was held to have been fully aware of the condition of an unlighted sidewalk and to have fully accepted the risk of danger. The occupier was absolved of responsibility.

[58]         While the plaintiff could see she was about to walk down a damp wooden ramp, and elected to proceed on the side without a guard or handrail, she could not see that the ramp was steeper than it should have been. Notwithstanding that the standard under s. 3(3) is lower than a common law volenti defence, I conclude that the plaintiff did not willingly assume the risk of walking down a ramp that was too steep.

[59]         I do find that the plaintiff failed to take reasonable care for her own safety in one respect, however. She knew there was no outside guard or handrail when she stepped onto the lower ramp, and she knew there was a handrail at least on the inside of the ramp. Even allowing for increased slipperiness because there was more debris on the inside of the lower ramp, the plaintiff was negligent to forego the increased safety of the handrail.

[60]         I accept that the plaintiff was keeping a reasonable lookout, and otherwise taking reasonable care for her own safety.

[61]         In all of the circumstances, I apportion liability 50% to the defendant, and 50% to the plaintiff.

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