What’s an Estate Trustee to do when faced with a situation in which an individual has threatened to bring a claim against the estate but has not yet actually taken any formal steps to advance the claim. As Estate Trustee you have certain obligations to the beneficiaries of the estate, including seeing to the administration in a timely manner. An Estate Trustee also has obligations to the creditors of the estate however, and needs to ensure to that all debts of the estate are paid prior to distributing the estate to the beneficiaries. If they fail to do so, the Estate Trustee could face potential personal liability to the creditors of the estate.
An active claim being commenced against the estate can significantly delay the amount of time it takes for an estate to be administered, as the Estate Trustee cannot see to the final administration of the estate while the claim remains active as they must ensure that there are requisite funds in the estate to satisfy any damages award should the estate ultimately not be successful in the claim. The same is also true for a claim that has been threatened against the estate, as the Estate Trustee may be apprehensive to distribute the estate in the face of a claim possibly being commenced for the same reason. When faced with a such a threatened claim the Estate Trustee could be put in a difficult dilemma, for on the one hand they wish to administer the estate in a timely fashion to the beneficiaries and there is no active claim that has been commenced that would otherwise stop them from doing so, yet because of the threatened claim they may be reluctant to do so for fear of their own potential liability should the claim later be commenced after the funds have been distributed. When faced with such a situation the “Notice of Contestation of Claim” could become the Estate Trustee’s new best friend.
At its most basic the Notice of Contestation of Claim provides a mechanism by which a Estate Trustee can require the potential claimant to formally advance their claim against the estate failing which they are deemed to have abandoned the claim. The “Notice of Contestation of Claim” process is governed by sections 44 and 45 of the Estates Act. If a potential claimant is served with a Notice of Contestation of Claim they are provided with 30 days to issue a “claim” pursuant to the Notice of Contestation of Claim, failing which they are deemed to have abandoned the claim. The 30 day deadline may be extended up to a maximum of three months by the court if the claimant should seek such an extension.
The process by which a Notice of Contestation of Claim is issued is governed by rule 75.08 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, providing the form (Form 75.13) that the Notice of Contestation of Claim must be in, as well as the steps that the claimant must follow to bring their claim before the court upon being served with the Notice of Contestation of Claim should they intend to pursue the matter.
Through the Notice of Contestation of Claim an Estate Trustee can force a potential claimant to make a decision regarding whether they intend to bring a claim against the estate. If the potential claimant does not take the appropriate steps following being served with the Notice of Contestation of Claim their potential claim is deemed to be abandoned and can no longer be pursued before the court, with the Estate Trustee being theoretically free to proceed with the administration of the estate.
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When most people reference a “limitation period” in Ontario, chances are that they are referencing the limitation period imposed by the Limitations Act, 2002, which generally provides an individual with two years from the date on which a claim is “discovered” to commence a claim before it is statute barred. Although an individual is presumed under the Limitations Act to have “discovered” the claim on the date that the loss or injury occurred, if it can be shown that the individual did not “discover” the claim until some later date the limitation period will not begin to run until that later date, potentially extending the limitation period for the claim to be brought for many years beyond the second anniversary of the actual loss or damage.
Although the limitation period imposed by the Limitations Act must be considered for situations in which an individual intends to commence a claim against someone who has died, individuals in such situations must also consider the much stricter limitation period imposed by section 38 of the Trustee Act.
Section 38 of the Trustee Act imposes a hard two year limitation period from the date of death for any individual to commence a claim against a deceased individual in tort. Unlike the limitation period imposed by the Limitations Act, the limitation period imposed by section 38 of the Trustee Act is not subject to the “discoverability” principle, but is rather a hard limitation period that expires two years from death regardless of whether the individual has actually yet to “discover” the claim. If an individual starts a claim against a deceased individual in tort more than two years after the deceased’s individual’s death it is statute barred by section 38 of the Trustee Act regardless of when the claim was “discovered”.
The non-applicability of the “discoverability” principle to the two year limitation period imposed by section 38 of the Trustee Act is confirmed by the Ontario Court of Appeal in Waschkowski v. Hopkinson Estate, (2000) 47 O.R. (3d) 370, wherein the court states:
“As indicated earlier in these reasons, based on the language of the limitation provision, the discoverability principle does not apply to s. 38(3) of the Trustee Act. The effect of s. 38(3) is, in my view, that the state of actual or attributed knowledge of an injured person in a tort claim is not germane when a death has occurred. The only applicable limitation period is the two-year period found in s. 38(3) of the Trustee Act.” [emphasis added]
Although the Court of Appeal in Waschkowski v. Hopkinson Estate appears firm in their position that the court should not take when the claim was “discovered” into consideration when applying the limitation period from section 38 of the Trustee Act, it should be noted that in the recent decision of Estate of John Edward Graham v. Southlake Regional Health Centre, 2019 ONSC 392 (“Graham Estate“), the court allowed a claim to brought after the second anniversary of the deceased’s death citing “special circumstances”. Although the Graham Estate decision is from the lower court while the Waschkowski v. Hopkinson Estate decision is from the Court of Appeal, such that it is at least questionable whether it has established a new line of thinking or was correctly decided, the Graham Estate decision may suggest that the application of the limitation period from section 38 of the Trustee Act is not as harsh as it was once considered. More can be read about the Graham Estate decision in Garrett Horrocks’ previous blog found here.
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Written reasons from a mid-trial motion was recently released in Barker v. Barker, 2019 ONSC 2906. The only issue in this motion was whether a particular video of a deceased plaintiff was admissible at trial. The larger claim at issue surrounds the Oak Ridge division of the Penetanguishene mental health centre and its treatment of maximum security mental health patients between the 60’s and the 80’s. One of the plaintiffs, James Motherall, died after the action was brought and his claims were continued by the estate trustees of Mr. Motherall’s estate under Rule 9 of the Rules of Civil Procedure.
Prior to Mr. Motherall’s death, Mr. Motherall was examined for discovery in the ordinary course but he was not examined under Rule 36 for the purpose of having his video testimony tendered as evidence at trial. Since a de bene esse examination did not occur, the trial judge was literally unable to assess Mr. Motherall’s credibility with his own eyes. In an effort to address this issue, counsel for the plaintiffs sought to introduce video footage of Mr. Motherall from a CBC documentary that featured Mr. Motherall and his experiences at Oak Ridge. The footage was taken a month before Mr. Motherall’s death and counsel for the Plaintiffs proposed to call the filmmaker as a witness to introduce the unedited footage of the filmmaker’s interview with Mr. Motherall.
Without criticizing the filmmaker’s work, the trial judge found that the video interview was not conducted under reliable circumstances for the purposes of a trial because Mr. Motherall was not sworn, he was not cross-examined, and he was simply asked to tell his story without more. The video was presumptively hearsay and it was up to the plaintiffs to meet, on a balance of probabilities, the criteria of necessity and reliability under the principled approach for the admissibility of hearsay evidence (R v. Khelawon, 2006 SCC 57, R. v. Chretien, 2014 ONCA 403).
In addition to the issues of reliability, the trial judge also found that the video was not necessary since there was a transcript of evidence from Mr. Motherall’s examination for discovery and an affidavit from Mr. Motherall in the course of a prior summary judgment motion.
Both the filmmaker’s proposed testimony and the video footage of Mr. Motherall was found to be inadmissible.
Even though Barker v. Barker is at its core a civil matter, the reasoning from this motion is instructive for estate litigators who are also bound by the additional hurdle for material corroboration pursuant to section 13 of the Evidence Act.
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Wrongful death does not give rise to a claim under Ontario law. Section 38(1) of Ontario’s Trustee Act states in part that “if death results from such injuries no damages shall be allowed for the death or for the loss of the expectation of life”.
Contrast this with the US, where wrongful death is very much a cause of action (perhaps depending on the state). In fact, in many prominent criminal cases, the end of the first trial is often just a pause in litigation, after which the civil wrongful death proceedings begin: some recent examples include the Natalee Holloway case, the O.J. Simpson case and the Scott Peterson case. Given the “balance of probabilities” civil standard of proof that a litigant must surpass versus the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard that the government must satisfy in a criminal trial, it is not unheard of for the defendant to avoid conviction and jail time but not a financially crippling loss in civil Court.
If an institution with deep pockets or wealthy individual defendant can be successfully linked to an alleged wrongful death, then the chances of securing a large award increase, particularly if an award for the payment of punitive damages award can be obtained. Cases brought against jails after inmates’ deaths offer numerous examples: see here, here and here.
While the deceased’s estate cannot sue in Ontario, family members do have limited rights to redress. Under Ontario’s Family Law Act defined family members can still sue for their “pecuniary loss resulting from the injury or death”. It is noteworthy that even here damages appear to be limited to pecuniary losses, and do not allow for claims regarding punitive or aggravated damages.
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