Automobile Insurance Act: The Supreme Court of Canada confirms the large and liberal approach in interpreting the bodily injury “suffered in an accident”

The Automobile Insurance Act (the “Act”) in Québec provides that where bodily injury was suffered in an accident, meaning any event in which damage is caused by an automobile, the compensation that the victim can receive corresponds to the amounts paid by the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (“SAAQ”), regardless of who is at fault.

On March 24th 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered a joint decision concerning the Godbout and Gargantiel cases[1], raising the same legal question:

[W]hether a person injured in an automobile accident who is eligible to receive compensation under the Act but whose condition is aggravated as a result of a fault committed by a third party can bring a civil action against the third party to seek compensation for bodily injury resulting from that subsequent fault.[2]

At the same time, the Supreme Court was called to rule on the scope of section 83.57 of the Act[3], prohibiting any civil action when compensation is paid under the Act in respect of the injury in question.

The facts can be summarized as follows. Both Ms. Godbout and Mr. Gargantiel were seriously injured in automobile accidents. Presuming the alleged facts are true, both of them would have subsequently suffered additional injuries due to faults attributable to third parties, being the medical staff who treated Ms. Godbout after her car accident and, for Mr. Gargantiel, the Sûreté du Québec officers who were allegedly negligent in searching for the crashed vehicle he was in. Although both Appellants had been compensated by the SAAQ pursuant to the Act, they sought to bring actions against the third parties, alleging subsequent faults that either aggravated their bodily injuries or caused separate bodily injury.

The majority of the Supreme Court (six judges, reasons written by the Honourable Justice Wagner; the Honourable Justice Côté dissenting) confirmed the large and liberal approach in interpreting the bodily injury “suffered in an accident” pursuant to the Act, which can include the aggravation resulting from the fault of a third party subsequent to the car accident.

For the Supreme Court, the causal link applicable in the context of the compensation scheme established by the Act is sui generis[4] :

“[P]rovided that there is a plausible, logical and sufficiently close link between, on the one hand, the automobile accident and the subsequent events (in the context of these appeals, the fault of a third party) and, on the other hand, the resulting injury, the Act will cover the whole injury. Thus, the fact that the injury in question has an “aggravated” or “separate” aspect that can be attributed to the events that occurred subsequently to the automobile accident is immaterial: those events will be deemed to be part of the accident, and therefore of the cause of the whole of the injury.”[5]

It was the language of the Act, the context in which it was enacted, the legislative intent and the jurisprudential principles applicable to the Act that led the Court to conclude as such. Indeed, the Supreme Court found that the Act resulted from a social compromise by which the legislature wanted to ensure that car accident victims obtain compensation for the whole of their injury, without having to identify someone who had committed a fault, thereby avoiding costly and uncertain court proceedings to this end.[6] According to the Court, concluding otherwise would cause a breach in the compensation scheme created by the Act, with the consequence that the SAAQ could refuse or decline to compensate victims, in whole or in part, or question its obligation to do so, on the basis of an aggravation of the injuries by a third party.[7]

Therefore, the Supreme Court concluded that the Appellants were barred from bringing further civil liability proceedings against third parties to obtain additional or complementary compensation to that provided by the Act.

McCarthy Tétrault represented one of the physicians involved in this litigation.

[1] Godbout v. Pagé, 2017 SCC 18

[2] Par. 4.

[3] Section 83.57 reads as follows : “Compensation under this title stands in lieu of all rights and remedies by reason of bodily injury and no action in that respect shall be admitted before any court of justice.”

[4] Par. 28.

[5] Par. 49.

[6] Par. 29-30.

[7] Par. 51.