In Clements v. Clements, 2012 SCC 32 (“Clements”), the Supreme Court of Canada clarified the circumstances in which a plaintiff in a negligence action may establish causation on the basis that the defendant’s conduct materially contributed to the risk that gave rise to the plaintiff’s injury, rather than the “but for” test.

The Court held that the “material contribution to risk” test will apply only where the plaintiff’s injury would not have occurred “but for” the negligence of two or more wrongdoers, each of which are potentially responsible for the loss, and the plaintiff, through no fault of their own, is unable to show that any one of the possible wrongdoers was the “but for” cause of the injury.

Background

The parties went on a motorbike trip. The defendant was driving the bike and the plaintiff was riding behind on the passenger seat. The weather was wet and the bike was overloaded with weight. Unbeknownst to the parties, a nail had punctured the bike’s rear tire. Although the defendant was travelling in a 100 km/h zone, he accelerated to at least 120km/h in order to pass a car. As he did so, the nail fell out of the tire, the rear tire deflated, and the bike began to wobble. The defendant was unable to bring the bike under control, and it crashed. The plaintiff was thrown off and suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. She sued the defendant, claiming that her injury was caused by his negligent operation of the bike.

In order to succeed in a negligence claim, a plaintiff must establish that:

  • the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care;
  • the defendant breached their duty of care;
  • the plaintiff suffered damages; and
  • the defendant’s breach of their duty of care caused the plaintiff’s damages.

In Clements, there was little dispute with respect to the first three elements. The key issue was whether the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injury.

In general, the test for showing causation is the “but for” test. This means that a plaintiff cannot establish causation unless the plaintiff shows that they would not have suffered the loss “but for” the defendant’s breach of their duty of care.  In other words, the defendant’s breach must have been necessary in order for the the plaintiff’s loss to have occurred.

At trial, the defendant called an expert witness who testified that the probable cause of the accident was the tire puncture and the deflation, and that the accident would have occurred even without the plaintiff’s negligence. The trial judge rejected this evidence, but did not conclude that the plaintiff’s injury would have occurred “but for” the defendant’s breach. Instead, the trial judge held that the defendant’s breach materially contributed to the plaintiff’s injury, and that this was sufficient to establish causation.

Decision

The key issue before the Supreme Court of Canada was whether the “but for” test for causation applied, or whether causation could be established on the basis of the “material contribution to risk” test.

Chief Justice McLachlin, writing for the majority, clarified that although a plaintiff must generally establish causation on the basis of the “but for” test, a plaintiff may, in exceptional circumstances, establish causation by showing that the defendant’s breach materially contributed to the risk of the plaintiff’s injury. In order to do so, the plaintiff must establish that:

  • the damage would not have occurred “but for” the negligence of two or more wrongdoers, each of which are possibly responsible for the loss; and
  • the plaintiff, through no fault of their own, is unable to show that any one of the possible wrongdoers in fact was the necessary or “but for” cause of her injury, because each can point to one another as a possible “but for” cause of the injury, defeating a finding of causation on a balance of probabilities against anyone.

In these exceptional circumstances, the “material contribution to risk” test will, in the Court’s view, result in a fair outcome. The plaintiff will have established “but for” causation with respect to the group of defendants as a whole, each defendant will have failed to act with the necessary care to avoid potentially causing the plaintiff’s loss, and each defendant may have in fact caused the plaintiff’s loss.

In the result, the Court concluded that the “material contribution to risk” test did not apply. Because the case involved a single defendant, the only issue was whether the injury would have occurred “but for” the defendant’s breach. Accordingly, the Court returned the matter to the trial judge to be assessed on the basis of the “but for” test.

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In the recent decision of Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61 (“Grant”) and its companion case, Quan v. Cusson, 2009 SCC 62 (“Quan”), the Supreme Court of Canada sought to strike a more appropriate balance between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation by creating the new defence of “responsible communication on matters of public interest” (the “Defence”). The Defence allows defendants in libel cases where statements of fact are at issue to evade liability if they can show that they acted responsibly in reporting on a matter of public interest, even if the statements of fact are untrue. Prior to the decision, defendants could not avoid liability in these cases unless they showed that the statement was substantially true (the defence of justification), or that the statement was made in a protected context (the defence of privilege).

Importantly, the Defence applies not only to journalists and print-based publishers – the types of defendants in Grant and Quan – but also to non-journalist bloggers and users of other online media:

[T]he traditional media are rapidly being complemented by new ways of communicating on matters of public interest, many of them online, which do not involve journalists. These new disseminators of news and information should, absent good reasons for exclusion, be subject to the same laws as established media outlets. I agree … that the new defence is “available to anyone who publishes material of public interest in any medium”. [Grant, at para. 96]

[Emphasis added]

Although the extension of the Defence to non-journalist bloggers and users of other online media is an important recognition of the growing relevance and legitimacy of these groups, the Defence is – at least currently – unlikely to protect most members of these groups. To gain the protection of the Defence, the defendant must establish two elements: (1) that the publication is on a matter of public interest; and (2) that the publication was responsible, in that the defendant was diligent in trying to verify the allegation. The trial judge will determine the first element. If the judge concludes that the first element is met, the jury will determine the second element, having regard to several factors:

  • the seriousness of the allegation;
  • the public importance of the matter;
  • the urgency of the matter;
  • the status and reliability of the source;
  • whether the plaintiff’s side of the story was sought and accurately reported;
  • whether the inclusion of the defamatory statement was justifiable;
  • whether the defamatory statement’s public interest lay in the fact that it was made rather than its truth; and
  • any other relevant circumstances

In assessing whether the defendant was diligent, the jury will be guided by “established journalistic standards”:

[M]any actions now concern blog postings and other online media which are potentially both more ephemeral and more ubiquitous than traditional print media. While established journalistic standards provide a useful guide by which to evaluate the conduct of journalists and non-journalists alike, the applicable standards will necessarily evolve to keep pace with the norms of new communications media. [Grant, at para. 97]

[Emphasis added]

This indicates that the same journalistic standard must be applied to every defendant irrespective of whether or not they are journalists. As a result, the Defence will likely not apply to non-journalist bloggers and users of other online media unless they perform the due diligence expected of a journalist in the circumstances.

The problem for many members of these groups is that they are generally not guided by established journalistic norms. Although they may approach online publishing in good faith and with a level of diligence reasonably expected of non-journalists, this level of diligence is unlikely to meet the required journalistic standard. For example, although journalists will generally make a point of seeking the plaintiff’s side of the story and speaking directly to witnesses and experts, non-journalist bloggers – who are generally unpaid for their efforts – will rarely have the time, resources, training, or willingness to do so. As one American commentator argues,

blogging and journalism clearly differ. The former ‘implies that a disinterested third party is reporting facts fairly’ (Andrews, 2003: 64). Blogs are ‘unedited, unabashedly opinionated, sporadic and personal’ (Palser, 2002) – in many ways, the antithesis of traditional US journalism. Some say that is the best thing about them. ‘Journalism is done a certain way, by a certain kind of people,’ but bloggers “are oblivious to such traditions” (Welsh, 2003). [Jane B. Singer, “The political j-blogger: ‘normalizing’ a new media form to fit old norms” (2005) 6(2) Journalism 173 at 176]

[Emphasis added]

Even if a non-journalist blogger or user of other online media does engage in the level of diligence required to meet the journalistic standard, they may unknowingly fail to do so in a way that produces a strong record of evidence from which a court can conclude that they did act diligently. As a result, many of these defendants may simply not have access to the protection of the Defence.

Nonetheless, Grant does not foreclose the possibility that courts will apply a different diligence standard to non-journalist bloggers and users of other online media as the “norms of new communications media” evolve. Although the court isn’t clear on this point, these groups might be able to gain the protection of the Defence in future cases even if they haven’t performed their diligence in the same way that a traditional journalist would have:

While established journalistic standards provide a useful guide by which to evaluate the conduct of journalists and non-journalists alike, the applicable standards will necessarily evolve to keep pace with the norms of new communications media. [Grant, at para. 97]

[Emphasis added]

Even if the standard applicable to these groups does not shift to allow them to gain the protection of the Defence, juries – who have been tasked with the responsibility for assessing whether the defendant was diligent – may be sympathetic to these groups and apply the journalistic standard less rigidly.

In summary, although the Defence extends to non-journalist bloggers and users of other online media, many members of these groups are unlikely to be protected by the Defence because it requires that they performed the due diligence expected of a journalist. Nonetheless, the law does not necessarily foreclose the possibility that courts will apply a different diligence standard to these groups in future cases, or that juries will less rigidly apply the existing journalistic standard.

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Also posted on Law is Cool and quoted in the Canadian Association of Journalists Media Magazine at p. 27.

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