Incapacity, Limitation Periods and Litigation Guardians: Complications Galore
Under the Limitations Act, 2002, most actions are subject to a two-year limitation period. However, the limitation period does not run during any time in which the person with the claim is incapable of commencing a proceeding AND not represented by a litigation guardian in relation to the claim. A person is presumed to be capable unless the contrary is proved.
What happens when a claim is commenced, but not all defendants are named? This issue arose in the recent decision of Wood v. David Mitchell et al., 2020 ONSC 4903 (CanLII). There, the plaintiff suffered a stroke. He sued a number of defendants in relation to his medical care. One doctor was referred to in the Statement of Claim, but not named as a party. Three years after the claim was started, the Public Guardian and Trustee was appointed as the plaintiff’s litigation guardian. The PGT moved to add the doctor as a defendant. The doctor moved to strike the claim on the basis of the passage of the limitation period. The plaintiff resisted, taking the position that the plaintiff did not have capacity when the claim was commenced, and did not have a litigation guardian.
The doctor raised two main points. Firstly, the doctor sought information about communications between the plaintiff and his initial lawyers going to his capacity at the time. Secondly, the doctor argued that the plaintiff was represented initially by a “de facto” litigation guardian, a Mr. McQueen.
The decision addressed these issues from the perspective of a motion to compel answers to questions and further production. The plaintiff had refused to answer questions about his and Mr. McQueen’s communications with his initial lawyers and to produce the lawyers’ file on the basis of relevance and privilege.
At first instance, the Master disallowed the questions. On appeal, the court ordered that the lawyers’ files as they relate to the plaintiff’s capacity and to Mr. McQueen’s dealings with the lawyers must be produced, even if privileged.
The court held that on the first issue, as the plaintiff put his capacity in issue, information that his lawyers had about his capacity was to be produced. The court stated that the “elephant in the room” was “what were the plaintiff’s initial lawyers thinking” when they commenced the claim? Did they believe that the plaintiff had capacity? If so, what was that belief based on?
On the second issue, the court referred to the Court of Appeal decision of Azzeh (Litigation Guardian of) v. Legendre, 2017 ONCA 385 for the proposition that a de facto litigation guardian could recommence the running of the limitation period. In Azzeh, the court held that a person could be considered litigation guardian, even if not formally appointed, if they held themselves out as litigation guardian. In Wood, the court held that the definition of “litigation guardian” might even by broader.
As can be seen, the issues that arise in litigation where the capacity of a party may be in issue can be complex. The courts must walk a fine line of ensuring that the right to sue is not taken away from an incapable person, while ensuring that the rights of third parties, including the right to the protection of limitation periods, are safeguarded.
Thank you for reading.