Court of Appeal Helps Clarify Causation in Personal Injury Claims – Farrant v. Laktin

by John McKiggan

“What Caused My Injury?”

A defendant is only responsible for compensating a plaintiff for injuries caused by the defendant’s negligent conduct. Proving what injuries were, or were not, caused by the defendant’s conduct is often the biggest battle in many personal injury trials. See for example, Causation in Personal Injury Claims.

There has been some legal debate as to how the Supreme Court of Canada’s decisions in Athey v Leonati and the more recent decision of Resurfice Corp v. Hanke relate to one another.


Last week the British Columbia Court of Appeal released a decision that helps clarify the application of these two landmark decisions on the law of causation.

In Farrant v. Laktin the plaintiff was injured in a car collision in 2004. Mr. Farrant had pre-existing issues with spinal degeneration which were symptomatic at the time of the car crash. After the collision his symptoms deteriorated.

At trial, the court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments that his ongoing pain was due to the car crash. However, the British Columbia Court of Appeal found that the trial judge did not apply the proper legal test for causation and ordered a new trial.

The Court of Appeal provided the following summary of the law of causation which is helpful reading for any personal injury lawyer (or plaintiff with a pre-existing condition or injury):

[8] To justify compensation for his disabling pain, the plaintiff must establish a causal connection between the defendant’s negligence and that pain.

[9] The general test for causation, established in Athey v. Leonati, [1996] 3 S.C.R. 458 at paras. 13-17, is the “but for” test: “but for” the accident, would the plaintiff have suffered the disabling pain? In Athey, the Court also stated that a plaintiff need not establish that the defendant’s negligence was the sole cause of the injury. If there are other potential non-tortious causes, such as the plaintiff’s spinal degeneration in this case, the defendant will still be found liable if the plaintiff can prove the accident caused or materially contributed to the disabling pain, beyond the de minimus range.

[10] In Resurfice Corp. v. Hanke, 2007 SCC 7, 1 S.C.R. 333, the Supreme Court affirmed the “but for” test remains the basic test for determining causation, but developed the concept of “material contribution” in a different manner than that used in Athey, formulating a “material contribution” test as an exception to the “but for” test, a matter that is not relevant to this appeal. The Court replaced the Athey definition of “material contribution” to the plaintiff’s injury with the concept of “a substantial connection” between the injury and the defendant’s conduct. These developments were usefully summarized by Mr. Justice Smith, writing for the majority, in Sam v. Wilson, 2007 BCCA 622 at para. 109:

“Material contribution”, as that phrase was used in Athey v. Leonati, is synonymous with “substantial connection”, as that phrase was used by McLachlin C.J.C. above in Resurfice Corp. v. Hanke. This causal yardstick should not be confused with the “material contribution test”. As McLachlin C.J.C. explained in Resurfice Corp. v. Hanke, at paras. 24 – 29, the “material contribution test” applies as an exception to the “but for” test of causation when it is impossible for the plaintiff to prove that the defendant’s negligent conduct caused the plaintiff’s injury using the “but for” test, where it is clear that the defendant breached a duty of care owed the plaintiff thereby exposing the plaintiff to an unreasonable risk of injury, and where the plaintiff’s injury falls within the ambit of the risk. …

[11] Thus, in applying the “but for” test, the trial judge was required to consider not just whether the defendant’s conduct was the sole cause of the plaintiff’s disabling pain, but also whether the plaintiff had established a substantial connection between the accident and that pain, beyond the de minimus level.

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