Recently, the Supreme Court of Canada released a decision in which it had to determine whether a city could be held liable for negligence for its snow removal methods.
Woman Injured Following Snowfall in British Columbia
On January 4 and 5, 2015, the City of Nelson in British Columbia experienced heavy snowfall. In response, it started plowing and sanding the streets, which included having City employees clear snow in angled parking stalls on Baker Street, located in the downtown core. City employees plowed the snow to the top of the parking spaces, creating a snowbank along the curb that separated the parking stalls from the sidewalk. As a result, the snowbanks blocked access to the sidewalk for drivers parking in the stalls. The City did not clear an access route to the sidewalk and drivers were forced to climb over the snowbanks to access the sidewalk.
On the evening of January 6, 2015, a woman parked in one of the angled parking stalls on Baker Street. She attempted to enter a business, but the snowbank created by the City blocked her access to the sidewalk. She climbed over the snowbank but as her right foot stepped onto it, she dropped through the snow, bending her forefoot up, and seriously injuring her leg.
The woman sued the City of Nelson for negligence.
Trial Judge rules City not Negligent, Injured Woman Author of her own Misfortune
The trial judge dismissed the woman’s claim, concluding that the City did not owe her a duty of care because its snow removal decisions were based on core policy decisions. He found the City had followed its written and unwritten policies on snow removal and its decisions were dictated by the availability of resources.
In the alternative, he also found that there was no breach of the standard of care and that in the further alternative, if there was a breach, the woman was the proximate cause of her own injuries or, in other words, she was the “author of her own misfortune”.
Court of Appeal finds Trial Judge did not Properly Assess Duty of Care and Erred in Failing to Apply the “But For” Test for Causation, New Trial Ordered
The Court of Appeal unanimously allowed the appeal and ordered a new trial. It found that the trial judge had not properly engaged with the distinction between government policy and operation relating to its duty of care, and had simply accepted the City’s submission that all snow removal decisions were core policy decisions.
On the standard of care, the Court of Appeal held that the trial judge’s analysis was improperly coloured by his view that the snow removal decisions were core policy decisions. The trial judge had accepted the City’s submission that this was “the way it has always been done” without engaging with other municipalities’ evidence on snow removal.
With regard to causation, the Court of Appeal held that the trial judge had misunderstood how to factor in the woman’s own fault by improperly reasoning that if she could have avoided the accident, she was the proximate cause of her injuries. It ruled that this was a failure to apply the “but for” test for causation.
City Appeals Decision to the Supreme Court of Canada
The City appealed the Court of Appeal decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Three issues were raised on appeal:
- Whether the trial judge erred in concluding that the City did not owe the woman a duty of care because its snow removal decisions were core policy decisions immune from negligence liability;
- Whether the trial judge erred in his standard of care analysis; and
- Whether the trial judge erred in his causation analysis.
Supreme Court Outlines Legal Principles Regarding Liability for Damages Caused by Government Negligence
At the outset, the court explained the underlying legal principles regarding the potential liability of municipalities and governments for negligence by stating:
“Under Canadian tort law, there is no doubt that governments may sometimes be held liable for damage caused by their negligence in the same way as private defendants. At the same time, the law of negligence must account for the unique role of public authorities in governing society in the public interest. Public bodies set priorities and balance competing interests with finite resources. They make difficult public policy choices that impact people differently and sometimes cause harm to private parties. This is an inevitable aspect of the business of governing. Accountability for that harm is found in the ballot box, not the courts. Courts are not institutionally designed to review polycentric government decisions, and public bodies must be shielded to some extent from the chilling effect of the threat of private lawsuits.”
However, the court also explained that while government decision-making is generally immune from liability for negligence, defining this scope has challenged courts for decades.
Supreme Court finds City of Nelson Could be Held Liable for Negligence
The Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Court of Appeal decision, ruling that the City could be held liable.
The Supreme Court determined the City’s snow removal decisions were not core policy that was immune from negligence liability; rather it was an operational decision and the City, therefore, owed the injured woman a duty of care.
With regards to the City’s standard of care and the issue of causation, the court agreed with the appeal decision, ruling that the trial judge’s analysis was tainted with legal errors.
The court also set out four factors to help in assessing the nature of a government’s decision as follows:
(1) The level and responsibilities of the decision-maker;
(2) The process by which the decision was made;
(3) The nature and extent of budgetary considerations; and
(4) The extent to which the decision was based on objective criteria.
In the result, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the City’s appeal and ordered a new trial.
Contact the Personal Injury Lawyers at Campbell Litigation in Waterloo if you have been Injured as a Result of a City’s Negligence
If you have suffered a serious injury and want to explore your legal options, contact our Waterloo-based personal injury team. Call us at 519-886-1204, or contact us online. We can assist with premise liability injuries, insurance litigation, and snowmobile accidents. We offer prospective personal injury clients a free initial consultation.