By Hélène Maurice, from our Insurance Law Practice Group
October 4, 2021 — Ballard c. Ville de Gatineau, 2021 QCCS 3695, recently rendered by the Superior Court, deals with the effect of the recognition of a right by a defending party on extinctive prescription.
The parties’ arguments
The case originated from the issuance of two infraction notices given by the City of Gatineau following embankment work carried out on their property by the plaintiffs. The latter`s position was that the notices were invalid. The City subsequently decided not to prosecute the alleged violations. The plaintiffs reacted by filing proceedings against the City for the loss caused by the interruption of the work that had followed the issuance of the illegal notices.
The City argued that the notices were legitimate and that the decision to renounce prosecution was purely discretionary. As such, the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden to prove a fault having caused the damages claimed. Furthermore, the City argued that the plaintiffs’ claim was statute barred given the six-month prescription period provided in section 586 of the Cities and Towns Act.
The plaintiffs argued that the prescription had been interrupted when the City recognized the legitimacy of their claim. They held that by deciding not to prosecute, and by informing the plaintiffs of the steps to take to claim compensation, the City had recognized their right, thus interrupting prescription.
Pursuant to article 2898 of the Civil Code of Québec, “[a]cknowledgement of a right, as well as renunciation of the benefit of the time elapsed, interrupts prescription.” The Court repeated the principles established by the Court of Appeal in Poirier c. Gravel, 2015 QCCA 1656. To validly conclude that prescription has been interrupted, the party that would benefit from it, the creditor, must demonstrate the debtor’s clear and unequivocal intention to recognize his right and, accordingly, relinquish the benefit of the time elapsed. As the Court stated, even an offer to settle, in and of itself, is not sufficient to interrupt prescription. Furthermore, the person who allegedly recognizes the opposing party’s right must have the capacity to bind the party on behalf of whom he purports to act.
In this case, although the City had explicitly stated its intention not to prosecute and had informed the plaintiffs of the procedure to claim damages, the Court concluded that these statements were not tantamount to an admission that the City had committed a fault, and were not a recognition of the plaintiffs’ alleged right to compensation.
Finally, even if there had been a clear intention on the part of the City’s spokesperson to acknowledge plaintiffs’ rights, she was not authorized to bind the City.
Therefore, as the prescription had not been interrupted, the Court concluded that the debt had been extinguished by prescription and dismissed the application without having to consider the City’s alleged fault or the plaintiffs’ damages.
The City of Gatineau was represented by Justin Beeby, partner in RSS’s Insurance Law Practice Group. Justin’s practice includes the defence of numerous cities and municipalities.