This paper was written under a partnership with the Montreal Association of Insurance Women.
Quebec’s Automobile Insurance Act, CQLR c A-25 [Act], is the object of abundant jurisprudence. The courts are frequently called upon to determine the field of application of the State regime, the object of which is to facilitate prompt compensation of the victim, but which is also sometimes raised by the third party responsible for a damage.
Such cases are numerous, and often require careful analysis. In two recent decisions, the Court of Appeal restated the basis of the Act and the criteria to keep in mind when determining whether it applies. In both cases, the decision of the trial court was overturned, demonstrating that there is still room for discussion.
A Neighbourhood Quarrel That Escalates
Lamarre c. Lemieux, 2022 QCCA 1166, stemmed from an altercation between two neighbours in connection with the use of a farm tractor that was legally licenced to circulate on public roads. As the plaintiff was travelling with his tractor near the defendant’s property, the defendant stepped in front of the vehicle to prevent it from moving on and was hit when the plaintiff released the parking brake. The defendant then proceeded to the side of the tractor to grab the plaintiff by his vest, which was torn as the plaintiff tried to continue on his way.
Following these events, both neighbours, who already had a stormy relationship, mutually claimed punitive and compensatory damages. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant had prevented him from circulating on his tractor, had grabbed him and attempted to throw him to the ground, and had falsely accused him of hitting him with his tractor. The defendant retaliated with a cross-application alleging that the plaintiff had hit him with the tractor and had taken pictures of his home and his spouse to document his file towards the judicial proceedings.
Having analyzed those facts and the provisions of the Act, the trial judge concluded that the dispute fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec [SAAQ] since the damage had a sufficient connection with the use of the tractor, a vehicle under the Act.
However, the Court of Appeal disagreed with this opinion.
The Court first recalled that the State regime for compensation established under the Act is intended to facilitate the compensation for bodily harm caused by an automobile. Bodily harm includes physical and psychological prejudice as well as damage to the clothes worn by the victim.
The application of this regime prevents the victim from filing a claim against the third party responsible for the bodily harm. Such a claim remains possible, however, for material damages, which are not compensated by the State.
Therefore, qualifying the prejudice, and the causal link between the prejudice and the use of the automobile, are at the heart of the analysis to be performed to decide whether the litigation falls within the exclusive jurisdiction of the SAAQ.
Although the Act must be given a broad and liberal interpretation to facilitate compensation, the Court emphasized that we should not conclude that it applies merely because an automobile is involved in the series of facts. It then proceeded to an analysis of each of the claim headings.
First the Court ruled that the plaintiff’s claims that he was yelled at and intimidated as he was driving his tractor do not arise from the use of an automobile. The automobile was not instrumental in the occurrence of the alleged damage, except for being at the origin of the defendant’s intervention. The alleged gestures and words would have had the same impact on the plaintiff had he not been seated on his tractor. The same goes for the allegations of false accusations that were made after the use of the tractor had ended. The alleged damage was a consequence of the defendant’s decision to report the events to third parties, and not of the use of the tractor. This was not a logical consequence of an automobile accident, or an accentuation of bodily harm already caused by an accident.
The same comments apply regarding the cross-application for damages arising from the pictures taken by the plaintiff. Even if the goal was to document the court record, the damages claimed were unrelated to the use of the tractor.
The case was therefore referred back to the Court of Québec for a decision on liability and quantum for those claim headings that do not fall under the scope of the State regime.
As to damages claimed by the plaintiff arising from the fact that the defendant would have grabbed him on his tractor, as well as those claimed by the defendant for having been hit by the vehicle, the Court of Appeal agreed with the trial judge that those are likely to be covered by the Act and therefore would be within the exclusive jurisdiction of the SAAQ.
A Dispute Between Motorists That Goes Sour
In the second case, Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec c. Ville de Montréal, 2022 QCCA 1165, there was an altercation between two motorists. The defendant, a police officer for the City of Montréal [City] who was off duty at the time of the events, used his personal vehicle to ram the plaintiff’s vehicle repeatedly. Following a chain of events that occurred as each motorist was in his vehicle, they both called 911. On the basis of false statements provided by the defendant, who claimed that the plaintiff was armed, the latter was arrested and charged with intimidation and threats.
Having been wounded during the events, the plaintiff asked and received compensation from this SAAQ.
At the conclusion of his criminal trial, the plaintiff was acquitted. Considering that he had sustained damages because of the defendant’s actions and false declarations having led to charges, he filed a civil claim against him and the City for compensation. The trial judge agreed with the City and ruled that the case was within the exclusive jurisdiction of the SAAQ, holding that the use of an automobile was the central element of the chain of events and that any future prejudice, distinct or aggravated, including the criminal charges, resulted from the initial accident.
The Court of Appeal considered that the trial court has erred in failing to consider the nature of the alleged prejudice and the purpose of the Act.
While we can easily understand that the bodily harm for which the plaintiff had been compensated by the SAAQ could not be grounds for a civil claim, the Court of Appeal considered that, at first glance, this could not be the case for lawyers’ fees related to the criminal charges and damages claimed for violations of Charter rights consisting of the plaintiff’s arrest and detention, which do not seem related to bodily harm. Keep in mind that material damages are not covered by the State regime.
As to moral and exemplary damages, everything will depend on whether the evidence reveals that those damages are related to the bodily harm sustained, in which case they cannot be claimed from the defendant, or whether they are related to the arrest and detention. Although the criminal charges were initially related to the use of an automobile, the alleged fault was committed once the use was terminated. The damages claimed are not intended compensation for bodily harm, but rather for the deprivation of the plaintiff’s freedom.
The Court reminded that caution is required when deciding upon the admissibility of a claim and referred the matter back to the trial court to allow a judge to determine, in light of the evidence that will be presented, whether all or part of the plaintiff’s claim falls within the exclusive jurisdiction of the SAAQ.
These recent cases illustrate that each fact pattern is important and that we cannot take for granted that the entirety of a claim somehow involving the use of an automobile invariably falls within the jurisdiction of the SAAQ.