Saadati v. Moorhead: Psychological Damages Claims – The Supreme Court of Canada Clarifies Legal Treatment of, and Damages Awarded for Mental Distress

On June 2, 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada released a unanimous decision, Saadati v. Moorhead , 2017 SCC 28, finding that a plaintiff claiming damages for mental injury need not prove they have a medically recognized psychiatric or psychological illness or condition to be awarded compensation.

2003 to 2009, Mr. Mohsen Saadati, was involved in five motor vehicle accidents. He sustained various injuries, suffered from chronic pain, and was declared mentally incompetent in 2010. The case dealt with the injuries Mr. Saadati sustained after the second accident, when his truck was hit by a Hummer driven by the respondent, Mr. Moorhead. From that accident, Mr. Saadati sought non-pecuniary damages and past wage loss. Mr. Moorhead opposed Mr. Saadati’s claim for damages.

At trial, the judge found that the testimony of Mr. Saadati’s family and friends was sufficient proof of his psychological injury, including cognitive difficulties and personality changes. These lay witnesses testified that after the second accident, Mr. Saadati spoke more slowly, was not “charming as before,” was a “totally different person,” was no longer as “active, happy, cheerful, outgoing, very nice,” treated children differently, had mood swings and complained of “huge headaches.”

The Court of Appeal overturned this decision on the basis that Mr. Saadati had not demonstrated a medically recognized psychiatric or psychological injury to support the award of non-pecuniary damages.

The Supreme Court of Canada’s judgement restored the $100,000 award for the non-pecuniary damages flowing from Mr. Saadati’s mental injury, suffered as a result of the accident.

The judgement clarifies what constitutes mental injury and how it may be proved. Importantly, the decision rejects the approach endorsed by lower courts across the country that tort claimants alleging mental injury must prove, with expert evidence, that their injury qualifies as a recognized and diagnosed psychiatric illness or condition. Writing for the Court, Justice Brown states in the judgement:

“This and other mechanisms by which some courts have historically sought to control recovery for mental injury are, in my respectful view, premised upon dubious perceptions of psychiatry and of mental illness in general, which Canadian tort law should repudiate.”

In addressing concerns over indeterminate liability and trivial claims, the Court noted that ordinary psychological upset will not be enough. Instead, the claimant is still required to demonstrate a sufficient degree of mental disturbance. To reach this threshold, a claimant must show that:

  • 1. the mental disturbance is serious and prolonged; and
  • 2. the mental disturbance rises above the ordinary annoyances, anxieties and fears that come with living in civil society.

Though the Supreme Court acknowledged that expert evidence is not required, it can still be helpful in establishing a claim. Absent a finding of a psychiatric diagnosis through experts or treating physicians, the decision-maker can still find that there is a mental injury based on the evidence.

This case has significant implications for victims, or their families, who have suffered from medical negligence at the hands of their trusted physicians and healthcare facilities, and who seek compensation for mental injuries arising as a result of that negligence. Without a categorized diagnosis of mental disorder, injured plaintiffs suffering from serious and ongoing psychological harm can finally be compensated for mental distress.

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