The Ontario Superior Court of Justice recently made an important ruling on a voir dire in respect of Dr. Kenneth Shulman’s proposed expert testimony.
This ruling will be of particular interest to estate litigators as it addresses the inherent admissibility of retrospective capacity assessments, amongst other things.
The Court in this instance implemented a form of blended voir dire, wherein Dr. Shulman’s evidence would be received in its entirety and submissions would be made on the issue of admissibility of the expert testimony. In the event that the Court ruled that Dr. Shulman’s evidence was admissible, the evidence obtained during the voir dire would be incorporated as part of the trial record.
The Defendant, amongst other objections, took issue with Dr. Shulman’s testimony on the basis that his testimony was based on a retrospective capacity assessment which was problematic for the following reasons:
- The proposed opinion was based on hearsay evidence and must therefore be excluded; and
- Expert opinion evidence on retrospective testamentary capacity assessments constitutes novel or contested science and is therefore not reliable.
The Court did not accept that Dr. Shulman’s use of certain evidence that has not been proven, and has not been relied upon him for the truth of its contents, prevents the Court from admitting his expert opinion evidence at the threshold admissibility stage. In other words, any such issues could be addressed in reference to the weight of the proposed evidence.
Most interestingly, however, the Court noted that many of the types of medical and psychiatric opinions offered at trial are retrospective in nature and did not agree that retrospective capacity assessments are novel in Ontario courts. The Court specifically noted that the Defendant was unable to identify a single case, since retrospective testamentary capacity assessments were first considered by the courts, in which psychiatric expert opinion of retrospective testamentary capacity assessment has been ruled inadmissible.
In applying the admissibility test established in R v Abbey 2017 ONCA 640, the Court held that Dr. Shulman’s expert opinion satisfied the threshold requirement in the first step. In weighing the cost versus benefit of admitting Dr. Shulman’s report, the Court found that the evidence favoured the admission of Dr. Shulman’s evidence.
The Court made a ruling admitting Dr. Shulman as an expert geriatric psychiatrist to provide expert opinion evidence in the areas of geriatric psychiatry and retrospective testamentary capacity assessment.
This is an important ruling in the context of estate litigation given that in most instances, the capacity assessments that are usually relied on in the course of litigation are of a retrospective nature, since the subject of the assessment is most often deceased.
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As part two of my earlier blog on the issue of expert witnesses at trial, Bruff-Murphy v. Gunawardena, 2017 ONCA 502, is a great read for the Court of Appeal’s view on the role of the trial judge during expert testimony.
In the introduction alone, Justice Hourigan was clear that “gone are the days when an expert served as a hired gun or advocate” (para. 1) and that it is the trial judge’s role to act as a gatekeeper so that the expert opinion evidence before the court is “fair, objective and non-partisan” (para. 2).
While my earlier blog focused on the legal test during the qualification stage, Justice Hourigan was also clear that the trial judge does not become functus the moment an expert witness is permitted to give expert opinion evidence. Rather,
“The trial judge must continue to exercise her gatekeeper function. After all, the concerns about the impact of a non-independent expert witness on the jury have not been eliminated. To the contrary, they have come to fruition. At that stage, when the trial judge recognizes the acute risk to trial fairness, she must take action” (para. 63).”
In this case, Justice Hourigan commented that there were various options available to the trial judge after the qualification stage, which trial counsel should also be aware of as suggestions in their toolkit. To quote Justice Hourigan at paragraphs 67 and 68 of this decision,
 Given this ongoing gatekeeper discretion, the question remains of what, as a practical matter, the trial judge could or should have done in this case. His first option would have been to advise counsel that he was going to give either a mid-trial or final instruction that Dr. Bail’s testimony would be excluded in whole or in part from the evidence. Had he taken that route, he would have received submissions from counsel in the absence of the jury and proceeded as he saw fit. Alternately, he could have asked for submissions from counsel on a mistrial, again in the absence of the jury, and ruled accordingly. In the event that he had to interrupt Dr. Bail’s testimony mid-trial, he would have had to consider carefully how best to minimize the potential prejudicial effect of the interruption from the respondent’s perspective.
 The point is that the trial judge was not powerless and should have taken action. The dangers of admitting expert evidence suggest a need for a trial judge to exercise prudence in excluding the testimony of an expert who lacks impartiality before those dangers manifest.
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As lawyers well know, all lawsuits must be instituted within the applicable limitation period as a first hurdle to successful litigation. While the time periods within which one must start a claim are clear in the Limitations Act and in other legislation, the time from which those periods start to run is not always so clear and may be a matter for a judge to decide.
In Zurba v. Lakeridge Health Corp. (2010), 99 O.R. (3d) 596 (ON SCJ), the plaintiff fractured his ankle in a way that exposed his bone and internal tissues to grass and dirt in August of 2003. The doctor who initially treated the plaintiff cleaned and dressed the wound with a cast instead of proceeding with the necessary surgery. Significant ongoing infection at the fracture site later caused another doctor to suggest amputation. The plaintiff refused and after lengthy course of surgeries and therapy with no improvement, the plaintiff retained counsel and initiated the law suit. The plaintiff subsequently received an expert medical opinion from an orthopaedic expert that the treating doctor’s care was negligent.
The Ontario Superior Court considered the Limitations Act, 2002 and its applicability with respect to the discoverability of the cause of action. Lauwers, J. found that a plaintiff must not only know of the injury but must also know that someone erred before the cause of action crystallizes and the limitation period commences running.
The Court went on to establish two categories of cases: 1) Where an expert opinion is not necessary to know whether to institute an action because all the material facts are known; and 2) where an expert opinion is required to trigger the limitation period because all material facts cannot be known without one. In Zurba, notwithstanding that the statement of claim was issued before the expert medical report was obtained, the Court found that it could consider the report with respect to discoverability in order to determine when the limitation period began to run.
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This week on Hull on Estates, Diane and Craig discuss what to consider when dealing with experts and expert reports in cross examination.
This week on Hull on Estates, Craig and Diane continue the discussion regarding experts in the context of estates. The conversation touches primarily on choosing the expert and considerations for the report.