The Supreme Court of Canada has reminded the bar, often enough, of the presumption that trial judges are presumed to know the law that they are required to apply. That’s good enough, I suppose, where the reasons are silent on what the applicable law is but the judge’s conclusion, considered reasonably, is consistent with that law.

But what is the bar supposed to do when judges regularly misstate the law, as set out by the Supreme Court of Canada, when we know, or ought to know, that law has reached BC? Check CanLII and satisfy yourself. You could restrict yourself to BCCA decisions because, after all, they’re binding on BCSC judges, because of what’s sometimes referred to as the big pecker – little pecker rule.  (Those of you who follow CJC inquiries into judicial (mis)conduct will know that two judges are offering as the defence for their conduct the assertion that they didn’t know the applicable law. Right. Imagine what most judges would do to counsel who tried that as an explanation for doing something inappropriate during a trial.) But we’re not going to talk about CJC-type judicial misconduct.

We’re going to talk – actually I’m going to write, those of you who care will read along, but none of us are going to “talk” because I’ve not turned comments back on – about a B.C. problem I’ve complained about before. It’s the refusal, unwillingness, inability – use whatever term you want – of some BC trial judges to at least quote the current SCC explanation of the test for proof of causation (factual and legal) in negligence. Instead, what we (I, you, whoever) see is some versmion of something which may or may not have been BC law back in 2007, provided we assume that BC could then and can now have law that’s contrary to what the SCC has said the law was and is.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised the problem hasn’t improved since I left BC. After all, it didn’t improve while I was there.

Maybe it’s the case that, sometimes, the misstatement of the law isn’t something the losing side should worry about because it’s clear enough from the evidence accepted by the judge as outlined in the reasons, and the knowledge counsel should have of the evidence that went in, that the result reached is the result required by the current law. Where there’s a jury trial, maybe it’s the case that the result is one that a properly instructed jury probably would have arrived at.

Let’s focus, though, on cases tried by judge alone, if only because those are the cases that usually have reported reasons from the trial judge.

However, sometimes it’s not the case that it’s clear enough that the result is the one required by the current law because there’s no other reasonable alternative, or at least the result that probably would have been reached had the judge instructed himself or herself properly.

I’ll now quote the portion of the reasons, dealing with proof of causation, in the recent McKenzie v. Lloyd, 2016 BCSC 1745 (CanLII), <;

[154]     To establish causation for MVA#3 and MVA#4, I consider the “material contribution” test as affirmed and explained in Resurfice Corp. v. Hanke,2007 SCC 7 (CanLII), where the Court reaffirmed the finding in Athey that at times the “but for” test is unworkable: para. 18. I find in the case of these subsequent accidents (MVA#3 and MVA#4) that I cannot hold that “but for” the negligent act of each defendant the injury would not have occurred. In fact, the injuries had already occurred, and would have continued to persist, though it is impossible to say in what degree, absent the subsequent accidents. However, it is clear on the facts that in the cases of MVA#3 and MVA#4, the defendants “breached a duty of care owed to the plaintiff, thereby exposing the plaintiff to an unreasonable risk of injury,” both of which are required elements of the “material contribution test”: Resurfice Corp. at para. 25. The test also requires that the plaintiff suffered a form of injury which was in the ambit of the risk created by the breach.

[155]     I find this to be the case. Although the accidents did not cause the injuries outright, they both aggravated and exacerbated the plaintiff’s pre-existing injuries and ultimately contributed to his current overall mental and physical state. I find this to be within the ambit of risk created by the negligence of each defendant that led to the respective MVAs. Therefore, causation is proved for MVA#3 and MVA#4.

[156]     The defendants have raised the argument that the depression experienced by the plaintiff is the result of financial stress. While I find the plaintiff’s financial circumstances likely contributed to the stress he experiences, and Dr. Caillier acknowledged this in cross-examination, there is insufficient evidence to prove that it is the sole or material cause of his stress and depression. This is especially true in light of the associated physical ailments and functional changes experienced by the plaintiff in the wake of the MVAs.

[157]     I therefore find that MVA#1 caused the plaintiff’s stroke, and that MVA#3 and MVA#4 exacerbated and reactivated his symptoms, thereby materially contributing to his pain, fatigue, cognitive limitations, loss of memory, stress and depression.

Funny thing is that it’s not 2007 any more. It’s 2016. More importantly, in 2012 the SCC restated the law establishing when the material contribution test is available. That case is Clements. I’m going to assume that most (no all) of you reading this know that. The trial judge knew about Clements. We know that because the trial judge quoted from Clements.

[109]     The “but for” test is the general test for factual causation: the plaintiff must prove on a balance of probabilities that but for the defendant’s negligence, he would not have suffered his injuries. As affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in Clements v. Clements,2012 SCC 32 (CanLII) at paras. 8-10, this is a factual enquiry and causation must be established by the plaintiff on a balance of probabilities, having regard for all the evidence.

[110]     The Court in Clements at para. 9, affirmed Mr. Justice Sopinka’s statement on the law of causation from Snell v. Farrell, 1990 CanLII 70 (SCC), [1990] 2 S.C.R. 311 at para. 29, where he said that causation need not be determined by scientific precision and that the “but for” test must be applied in a “robust common sense fashion.

So how, then, do we get reasons which don’t mention the later passages in Clements dealing with the Resurfice explanation for the circumstances under which the material contribution test is applicable. I’m not going to quote those passages, yet again. If you’re here, you know how to find them. What I will quote is this from Clements:

[34]  In Resurfice, this Court summarized the cases as holding that a material contribution approach may be appropriate where it is “impossible” for the plaintiff to prove causation on the “but for” test and where it is clear that the defendant breached its duty of care (acted negligently) in a way that exposed the plaintiff to an unreasonable risk of injury. As a summary of the jurisprudence, this is accurate. However, as a test it is incomplete. A clear picture of when “but for” causation can be replaced by material contribution to risk requires further exploration of what is meant by “impossible to prove” (Resurfice, at para. 28) and what substratum of negligence must be shown. I will discuss each of these related concepts in turn.

The Chief Justice then did.

The trial judge did not.

Indeed, one might infer from the reasons that, at least on the day(s) the trial reasons were written at least through the time of their publication, the trial judge did not know the law that the trial judge was supposed to apply.

One might also search on CanLII to see whether there were prior days.

In any event, I leave you with this. Read the reasons, if you care to, and attempt to form a conclusion as to whether, on the evidence recounted by the judge, you’re able to say that the result is justified under the correct statement of the applicable law. Or, perhaps, are you left in this position, again quoting from (the majority reasons) in Clements delivered by the Chief Justice:

[53] We cannot be certain what the trial judge would have concluded had he not made the errors I earlier described. All that can be said is that the parties did not receive a trial based on correct legal principles. In my view, the appropriate remedy in these circumstances is an order for a new trial.

BC counsel, at the least, will know who probably will not suffer, financially, if there is a new trial. I suppose I should not be heard to complain about that. After all (here’s where you get your full disclosure) I was once a practising member of the defence lawyers’ firm, am still on the firm’s letterhead, and, most importantly, I consider the firm’s lawyers my friends.

I’m sure there’s an explanation for what happened. I’m sure there’s an explanation for why this keeps happening in BC. I happen to think there’s no good explanation. You my think otherwise. The virtual floor is yours; just not on this forum. And not with me; here or elsewhere.