Recovery for Mental Injury Not Dependent on Psychiatric Diagnosis
Is mental injury in a personal injury claim compensable despite lack of a medical diagnosis of a psychological condition? On June 2, 2017, Canada’s top court affirmed it is.
In Saadati v. Moorhead, 2017 SCC 28, the plaintiff claimed psychological injuries from one of five motor vehicle accidents he had been involved in. The pleadings broadly alleged mental injury and the plaintiff did not produce expert evidence supporting a psychiatric diagnosis. Rather, he relied on the testimony of friends and family who testified that his personality had changed for the worse after the accident. The defendants argued that the plaintiff had not proven that he suffered compensable mental injury. At trial, the plaintiff was successful. The defendants appealed and the Court of Appeal agreed that the plaintiff had not demonstrated mental injury with a medically recognized psychiatric or psychological injury. The plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
A unanimous panel of the Supreme Court of Canada, in a decision written by Mr. Justice Brown, held that an actual diagnosis of a recognized psychological injury was not required at law to prove mental injury. Doubling down on its prior decision in Mustapha v. Culligan of Canada Ltd., 2008 SCC 27, the Court held that the test to determine whether a mental injury is compensable at common law in a personal injury claim is the same as the test for any other compensable damage. In order to succeed in a negligence claim for any injury, mental or physical, a plaintiff must prove the following elements: that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, the defendant breached that duty of care, the plaintiff suffered damages, and those damages arose from the defendant’s breach of the duty of care. The Court stated that the law does not require anything more to prove mental injury. The existing elements of negligence are sufficient to safeguard against unmeritorious claims for mental injury.
The Court premised its decision on a “simple truth” – that an individual’s mental integrity is as essential to their personhood as their physical integrity or property; that loss of one’s mental health, far from being incidental to one’s sense of self, was a more fundamental violation than the loss of a body part. To require a victim of mental injury to pass a threshold test of obtaining a psychiatric diagnosis would be to accord unequal protection to him or her in comparison to a victim of physical injury. Ultimately, it would perpetuate the stigma and prejudice faced by people with mental injury.
The Court reminded judges that a trier of fact is concerned with symptoms and their effects on an individual claiming injury and is not concerned with a diagnosis. He clarified that the classification schemes developed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems were of no legal relevance. He reminded judges that the responsibility of the trier of fact to carefully assess the credibility of the witness and make a determination on the facts could not be assigned to medical professionals operating in an ever-evolving state of scientific understanding.
With this decision, the Supreme Court of Canada laid to rest any misconceptions regarding how the law of negligence should approach questions of mental injury in a personal injury case.