Supreme Court of Canada Strikes Out Big Tobacco’s Claims Against Canada – R v Imperial Tobacco Limited

by John McKiggan

Tobacco Companies Strike Out Again

Last week the Supreme Court of Canada weighed in (again) on a lawsuit filed by the province of British Columbia, which seeks to recover health care costs for tobacco-related illnesses.

First Strike

This is the second time this lawsuit has made it to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In 2001 British Columbia passed the Tobacco Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Act that gave the province the authority to sue tobacco manufacturers for recovery of health care costs for people suffering from tobacco related illnesses.

The tobacco industry challenged the constitutional validity of the legislation.

Three issues were put to the Supreme Court of Canada:

1.Is the Act ultra vires the province by reason of extraterritoriality?

2.Is the Act constitutionally invalid as being inconsistent with judicial independence?

3.Is the Act constitutionally invalid for violating the rule of law?

In September 2005 the Court answered “no” to all of these issues and ruled that the legislation was constitutional.

Second Strike

In R v Imperial Tobacco Limited the defendants made a motion to add Canada as a third-party to British Columbia’s lawsuit.

The tobacco companies pleaded that if they were held liable to the Government of British Columbia, Canada should reimburse the tobacco companies for any damages payable. The Government of Canada brought a motion to strike out the third-party claim.

Test to Strike Pleadings

The Supreme Court of Canada confirmed the long-standing rule, applicable in all jurisdictions across Canada, that claims will only be dismissed if they have “no reasonable prospect of success”.

The Court stated at paragraphs 19 through 25 of the decision:

[19] The power to strike out claims that have no reasonable prospect of success is a valuable housekeeping measure essential to effective and fair litigation. It unclutters the proceedings, weeding out the hopeless claims and ensuring that those that have some chance of success go on to trial.

[20] This promotes two goods – efficiency in the conduct of the litigation and correct results. Striking out claims that have no reasonable prospect of success promotes litigation efficiency, reducing time and cost. The litigants can focus on serious claims, without devoting days and sometimes weeks of evidence and argument to claims that are in any event hopeless. The same applies to judges and juries, whose attention is focused where it should be – on claims that have a reasonable chance of success. The efficiency gained by weeding out unmeritorious claims in turn contributes to better justice. The more the evidence and arguments are trained on the real issues, the more likely it is that the trial process will successfully come to grips with the parties’ respective positions on those issues and the merits of the case.

[21] Valuable as it is, the motion to strike is a tool that must be used with care. The law is not static and unchanging. Actions that yesterday were deemed hopeless may tomorrow succeed. Before Donoghue v. Stevenson, [1932] A.C. 562 (H.L.) introduced a general duty of care to one’s neighbour premised on foreseeability, few would have predicted that, absent a contractual relationship, a bottling company could be held liable for physical injury and emotional trauma resulting from a snail in a bottle of ginger beer. Before Hedley Byrne & Co. v. Heller & Partners Ltd., [1963] 2 All E.R. 575 (H.L.), a tort action for negligent misstatement would have been regarded as incapable of success. The history of our law reveals that often new developments in the law first surface on motions to strike or similar preliminary motions, like the one at issue in Donoghue v. Stevenson. Therefore, on a motion to strike, it is not determinative that the law has not yet recognized the particular claim. The court must rather ask whether, assuming the facts pleaded are true, there is a reasonable prospect that the claim will succeed. The approach must be generous and err on the side of permitting a novel but arguable claim to proceed to trial.

[22] A motion to strike for failure to disclose a reasonable cause of action proceeds on the basis that the facts pleaded are true, unless they are manifestly incapable of being proven: Operation Dismantle Inc. v. The Queen, [1985] 1 S.C.R. 441, at p. 455. No evidence is admissible on such a motion: r. 19(27) of the Supreme Court Rules (now r. 9-5(2) of the Supreme Court Civil Rules). It is incumbent on the claimant to clearly plead the facts upon which it relies in making its claim. A claimant is not entitled to rely on the possibility that new facts may turn up as the case progresses. The claimant may not be in a position to prove the facts pleaded at the time of the motion. It may only hope to be able to prove them. But plead them it must. The facts pleaded are the firm basis upon which the possibility of success of the claim must be evaluated. If they are not pleaded, the exercise cannot be properly conducted…It is not about evidence, but the pleadings. The facts pleaded are taken as true. Whether the evidence substantiates the pleaded facts, now or at some future date, is irrelevant to the motion to strike. The judge on the motion to strike cannot consider what evidence adduced in the future might or might not show. To require the judge to do so would be to gut the motion to strike of its logic and ultimately render it useless.

[24] This is not unfair to the claimant. The presumption that the facts pleaded are true operates in the claimant’s favour. The claimant chooses what facts to plead, with a view to the cause of action it is asserting. If new developments raise new possibilities – as they sometimes do – the remedy is to amend the pleadings to plead new facts at that time.

[25] Related to the issue of whether the motion should be refused because of the possibility of unknown evidence appearing at a future date is the issue of speculation. The judge on a motion to strike asks if the claim has any reasonable prospect of success. In the world of abstract speculation, there is a mathematical chance that any number of things might happen. That is not what the test on a motion to strike seeks to determine. Rather, it operates on the assumption that the claim will proceed through the court system in the usual way – in an adversarial system where judges are under a duty to apply the law as set out in (and as it may develop from) statutes and precedent. The question is whether, considered in the context of the law and the litigation process, the claim has no reasonable chance of succeeding.

Why Should Nova Scotians Care?

The decision is of interest to citizens in this province because our government recently enacted legislation similar to British Columbia and is currently considering filing a claim for recovery for health care costs incurred for treating tobacco-related illnesses.

More Information

Smoke Free Canada – Tobacco litigation timeline

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