Claims for negligently caused mental injury (also referred to as “psychological injury” or “psychiatric damage”) are often treated with greater scepticism than claims for physical personal injury. While some types of physical injury such as soft tissue injuries can be more challenging to prove, generally speaking, physical injuries such as cuts and broken bones are objectively verifiable. Mental injury, however, is often not as readily apparent.
To support a claim for compensation for mental injury is it necessary for the injured person to provide expert evidence or other proof of a recognized psychiatric illness? In Saadati v. Moorhead, 2017 SCC 28, the Supreme Court of Canada said no. Overturning a decision of the BC Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court of Canada specifically rejected the notion that compensation for mental injury depends on the injured person proving a recognized psychiatric illness. While relevant expert evidence will often be helpful in determining whether the injured person has proven a mental injury, it is not required as a matter of law.
Personal injury claim in Saadati v. Moorhead
On July 5, 2005, Mr. Saadati was driving a tractor-truck in New Westminster, BC, when his vehicle was struck by another vehicle. Mr. Saadati’s truck sustained significant damage, but he appeared at the time to have been uninjured. He went to a nearby hospital, but was not admitted. Once a funny, energetic, and charming individual, after the accident he became sullen and prone to mood swings. Close relationships with family and friends deteriorated and he complained of headaches. Mr. Saadati brought a claim in negligence for his mental injuries, seeking compensation from the driver who caused the accident. At trial, the judge awarded $100,000 in non-pecuniary damages for mental injury to Mr. Saadati on the strength not of expert evidence, but of the testimony of lay witnesses – his friends and family – to the effect that, after his involvement in the automobile accident, his personality had changed for the worse. The evidence accepted by the trial judge clearly showed a serious and prolonged disruption, over and above ordinary emotional upset or distress. The trial judge found that the accident caused Mr. Saadati to suffer psychological injuries, including personality change and cognitive difficulties such as slowed speech, leading to a deterioration of his close personal relationships with his family and friends. The trial judge remarked (at para. 65) that Mr. Saadati "was a changed man with his irritability likely reflecting a dark realization that he was not the man he once was". The negligent driver appealed that decision, arguing that the trial judge should not have awarded damages for mental injury that did not correspond to a proven, recognized psychiatric illness. The BC Court of Appeal agreed and reversed the trial judge’s decision, holding that recovery for mental injury requires the injured person to prove, with expert medical opinion evidence, a recognizable psychiatric illness. The Supreme Court of Canada reversed the BC Court of Appeal’s decision, restoring the trial judge’s award of $100,000. The take home point from Saadati is that lack of a psychiatric diagnosis is something that the judge can choose to weigh against evidence supporting the existence of a mental injury, but on its own, lack of a diagnosis of a recognized psychiatric illness does not defeat a personal injury claim.
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