Category: Jurisprudence

Some useful cases on the but-for test

The counterfactual analysis aspect

A case worth reading, because it accurately explains how the but-for counterfactual hypothetical (i.e., possible, what-if, etc., world) analysis is to be done. (For those who have been paying attention, that’s the analysis for a test that we’ve been told isn’t metaphysical at all, which is one reason why we’re to use it rather than go adventuring with philosophers into abstract metaphysics, or something like that.)

Lee v Minister for Correctional Services, [2012] ZACC 30,  2013 (1) SACR 213 (CC) (11 December 2012) starting at para. 37.

As a colleague put it, the court’s explanation is “far better than anything our Supreme Court has ever come up with”.

One case that isn’t helpful on the “how” of the counterfactual analysis – even if, for other reasons, the result of the case is correct: I make no comment on that point – is Eli Lilly and Company v. Apotex Inc., 2014 FC 1254 at paras. 20-35. I believe that, after you read Lee, if you read Lee, you’ll understand why the discussion in Eli Lilly isn’t helpful. And why the explanation is wrong, even if the conclusion is correct.

The how much evidence is enough aspect – i.e., the Snell robust and pragmatic inference

Another case worth reading is St-Germain c. Benhaim, 2014 QCCA 2207 (CanLII) – see the  majority reasons of KASIRER and BÉLANGER, JJ.A (in English).

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Do what we do, not what we say: appeals are from results, not reasons

even if the appellate court also seemingly misstates the law, at least if we give the words used their ordinary legal meaning.

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Expert Evidence; Inferences About Factual Causation; Snell v Farrell; Ediger v Johnston

With the end approaching of what would have been, once upon a time, the  “long vacation” and litigators gearing up for the fall court season, it’s time for a fashion tip reminder.

The reminder is that is is no longer the law in common law Canada that, somehow, the  but-for test is to be applied differently in civil cases where expert evidence is adduced on the issue of factual causation, even in those places where it was once fashionable to assert it was; even in those places in common law Canada where some seem to think it is still in fashion to assert it is.

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Proving factual causation: the process of drawing causal inferences

From Russell Brown,* “Cause-in-Fact at the Supreme Court of Canada: Developments in Tort Law in 2012-13” (2014), 64 S.C.L.R. (2d) 327 at 331

(* now a Justice of the Alberta Court of Appeal and Honorary Professor of Law at the University of Alberta; Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta at the time of publication)

       It is worth making two observations about the drawing of a causal inference.  First, there is nothing unorthodox about the proposition that a fact-finder may draw causal inferences, even in the absence of verifying scientific evidence.  Inference-drawing is inherent not only in all causal fact-finding, but in all fact finding.  Just as one might infer from evidence that an automobile made a screeching noise immediately prior to a collision that the driver saw the obstruction just before striking it, one may also infer (or not infer) that evidence of risk, of harm and of the surrounding circumstances is so arrayed so as to support the drawing of an inference of a causal relationship between the risk and the harm – and all without the reassurance of expert evidence.  And, just as the absence of direct evidence that the driver saw the obstruction before hitting it does not preclude an inference that he or she did, the absence of direct evidence verifying a causal link between risk and harm is similarly not determinative.  Fact-finders infer, or they do not infer, and they may do so on evidence that bears only indirectly to the proposition being advanced.[16]

The second observation is that causal inference-drawing is not presented in Snell as some form of alternative or watered-down version of the but for test.[17]  If all fact-finding is necessarily inferential, then fact-finding to the but for standard is also inferential.  So long as the inference is drawn on a balance of probabilities, causal inference is no alternative to the but for test, but is an instantiation of it.  It is how the but for test is to be applied – and not merely in some cases, but in all cases.

[Emphasis added.]

[16] Russell Brown, “The Possibility of ‘Inference Causation’:  Inferring Cause-in-Fact and the Nature of Legal Fact-Finding” (2010) 55 McGill L.J. 1, at 30-35 [Brown, “Inference Causation”].

[17] This was the criticism of Lewis Klar, in Tort Law, 3d ed. (Toronto:  Thomson Carswell, 2003) at 403:  “[w]hile [inference-drawing] may produce a pragmatic solution to a plaintiff’s dilemma in difficult causation cases, it does depart from the traditional “but for” test, and the balance of probability standard.”  This statement does not appear in subsequent editions of Professor Klar’s book.

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Biting a less dangerous (for me) hand

The trial judge wrote in

Skrepnek v Krochak, 2014 ABQB 358

[100]      Sopinka J. for the Supreme Court in Snell held that factual uncertainty in that case did not automatically defeat the claim but that a “robust and pragmatic approach to the facts” could enable an inference to be drawn even though medical or scientific expertise could not arrive at a definitive conclusion:  Snell at para 22.  He continued at para 32, stating that “[w]hether an inference is or is not drawn is a matter of weighing the evidence”. This does not negate, however, the “but for” test.  It still applies but can be satisfied by the drawing of a causal inference to a balance of probabilities from the circumstances in which risk arose and harm materialized: Clements v Clements, 2012 SCC 32 at para 8, [2012] 2 SCR 181. See also Brown J. (as he then was), Cause-in-Fact at the Supreme Court of Canada: Developments in Tort Law in 2012-2013 (2014) 64 SCLR (2d) 327 at 337.

[Emphasis in bold added].

Your assignment, if you chose to read the case, and comment, here, is to decide whether the trial judge identified “the circumstances” other than (1) “the risk” and (2) the fact that the “harm materialized” which made this case one in which “the circumstances,” other than the fact of the risk and that it materialized, together with the facts that there was a risk of harm and that it materialized – that the plaintiff was injured from that risk – were sufficient to support an inference made on the balance of probability that the negligence was a necessary cause of the injury.

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