Mental Injury Claims No Longer Need a Psychiatric Diagnosis to be Successful

Last week the Supreme Court of Canada released a decision which will have a significant impact on injury claims in Nova Scotia and across Canada. In Saadati v. Moorhead, the judges unanimously ruled that injury victims may recover compensation for their mental injuries without needing to prove that they have a medically recognized psychiatric or psychological illness. The decision is important in that it represents an important change to what was previously problematic law and may open the door wider for psychological injury claims.

The person at the center of the case was involved in a car accident when another driver collided into him. He brought an injury claim against the negligent driver. While not physically injured, he alleged that he had sustained a mental injury. This claim was supported by his friends and family at trial, each of whom testified that after the accident his personality changed for the worse. Once a funny, energetic, and charming individual, he had become sullen and prone to mood swings. The close relationships he shared with his family and friends had deteriorated. The trial judge accepted this evidence, and given the significant impact of the accident on his quality of life, awarded the injured driver $100,000 for pain and suffering.

The insurance company appealed the decision on the basis that the injured driver had not proven that the accident had resulted in a “medically recognized psychiatric or psychological illness”. Citing case law affirming that such a diagnosis was a prerequisite in order to receive compensation, the Court of Appeal agreed with the insurance company and reversed the trial decision. The injured driver appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada which agreed to hear his case.

The Supreme Court observed the prior state of the law: that courts across Canada saw the requirement of a “recognizable psychiatric illness” as being a necessary threshold in order to recover compensation for a mental injury. It noted that physical injuries have no threshold to receive compensation and questioned whether drawing a distinction was fair and appropriate. Ultimately it concluded that it was time to change the law.

The Court observed that just like with physical injuries, Canadian negligence law recognizes that a duty exists to take reasonable care to avoid causing foreseeable mental injury. This duty protects all of us from negligent interference with one’s mental health.

Because the law of negligence accords identical treatment to mental and physical injury, the Court ruled that a finding of a legally compensable mental injury need not rest on the injured person proving a recognized psychiatric injury. Insisting that mentally harmed individuals must prove that their injury meets the threshold of recognizable psychiatric illness, while not imposing a similar requirement upon physically injured Canadians to show that their condition meets a certain threshold, would accord unequal protection to victims of mental injury. The Court ultimately found that imposing distinct rules to preclude compensation in cases of mental injury, but not in cases of physical injury was inappropriate and unfair.

This decision is a welcome and much needed development of the common law, especially for those mentally harmed through the negligence of another. The decision will also have an important impact on class actions, where wrongful conduct can often result in many individuals suffering from varying degrees of mental distress. If you have questions about an injury claim, don't hesitate to contact one of our experienced injury lawyers for a free consultation.