This article first appeared in the summer 1996 issue of the Expert Witness.
The Alberta Court of Appeal decision in Galand Estate v. Stewart (1992), 6 Alta. L. R. (3d) 399 opened the possibility that the estate in a fatal accident action could claim for the deceased’s loss of earning capacity (both past and future). Subsequently, two trial decisions – Duncan Estate v. Bradley (1994), 161 A.R. 357; and McFetridge Estate v. Olds Aviation Ltd. (unreported, Edmonton, April 12, 1996) – have been rendered which offer interpretations of the Galand decision.
In this, the first of two articles on the Galand decision, the arguments raised in these three decisions are summarised. A second article, to be published in the next edition of this newsletter, will discuss the implications of these decisions for the calculation of damages in fatal accident actions.
Galand Estate v. Stewart
In Galand, the estate of the deceased based a claim for the “…value of the present capital loss of earning capacity of the deceased…” on sections 2 and 5 of Alberta’s Survival of Actions Act:
2. A cause of action vested in a person who dies after January 1, 1979, survives for the benefit of the estate….
5. If a cause of action survives under section 2, only those damages that resulted in actual financial loss to the deceased or his estate are recoverable… (emphasis added)
The defendants raised two substantive arguments against the existence of the plaintiff’s cause of action. First, they argued that a loss of earnings could not constitute an “actual financial loss,” as required under section 5; and, second, they questioned the policy of providing a “windfall” to persons who are not dependents, on the ground that such a provision was not consistent with tort law’s fundamental goal of compensation.
Actual Financial Loss
In Galand, Coté J.A. (with Belzil J.A. concurring) considered and rejected three versions of the defendant’s position concerning actual financial loss. First, he did not accept the argument that a loss of future earnings was not “actual” because it was necessarily “speculative” or “contingent.” He countered with the example of a fatal accident victim with no dependents who had a completely secure salary and employment, such as a tenured university professor. Second, he rejected the proposition that “actual” and “real” necessarily implied “present,” not “future.” Finally, he did not agree that s. 5 barred claims for “general damages,” such as losses of future earnings. In his words, “[h]ad the Legislature meant ‘special damages’, it would have said so” (at 407).
Hembroff J. made it clear in Duncan that he did not agree with the majority reasoning in Galand. In particular, he quoted Black’s Law Dictionary as defining “actual” to mean
“… having a valid objective existence, opposed to that which is merely theoretical or plausible; opposed to hypothetical or nominal…”
[Randolph Langley, in a paper entitled Wrongful Death Claims, prepared for the Legal Education Society of Alberta, notes, however, that Black’s definition of “Damages: actual damages” includes:
“… Synonymous with “compensatory damages” and with “general damages” (emphasis added, Black’s 6th Edition, at 390).]
Coté J.A. also rejected the argument that actions for loss of future earnings should be denied because they represented a windfall to the beneficiaries of the estate rather than compensation. First, he noted that in some circumstances an individual who was the beneficiary of an estate might not be a dependent under the Fatal Accidents Act. Such an individual would be deprived of part of his inheritance from the deceased if he could not make a claim based on the Survival of Actions Act. Second, he noted that if the deceased had lost an income-producing machine at the moment of death, there would have been no doubt that his estate was entitled to claim full compensation for destruction of that machine. Yet such compensation might also represent a windfall to his estate.
Again, Hembroff J. dissented, citing Madam Justice McLachlin’s argument, in a case involving a young girl who had a severely shortened life expectancy, (Toneguzzo-Norvell v. Burnaby Hospital  1 S.C.R. 114), that
“… the award for lost earning capacity will serve but one purpose: to enrich her heirs” (at 127, emphasis added).
Similarly, Hembroff J. concluded that the “..tragic loss of a son should not be the notional income producing machine that puts money, ‘windfall or otherwise’ into the hands of his parents” (at 83).
Justice Hembroff’s objections notwithstanding, Justice Coté’s decision concerning “actual financial loss” was enunciated sufficiently clearly that most lower courts will find they are forced to conclude that estates do have a cause of action for general damages – it is only the measure of damages (to be discussed in the next issue of this newsletter) which remains uncertain.
A similar conclusion must be reached with respect to the treatment of beneficiaries of the estate of a deceased who are not also dependents. Here, Justice Coté was also clear, that the estate’s claim is to survive.
The decision in Galand with respect to “windfall gains” was stated much less clearly, however. The only assistance which Justice Coté provided to the trial courts derived from his analogy between the earning capacity of Wayne Gretzky and that of an “income-producing machine;” and from his decision that a loss of earning capacity could be considered to be an actual financial loss.
Two conclusions seem possible from this ruling. The first is that compensation is to be awarded only in those cases in which the deceased had a well-established earnings stream. The second is that compensation is to be awarded in all cases in which it can be shown, on balance of probabilities, that the deceased would have been a productive member of society. (Justice Coté’s decision concerning actual financial damages would appear to preclude the conclusion that damages are never to be awarded.)
Of these possible interpretations, Justice Coté appears to prefer the former. The examples which he provides in support of his conclusion that a loss of earnings is an actual financial loss all concern situations in which the individual’s earning capacity was well established – see his examples concerning tenured professors and Wayne Gretzky. Furthermore, his apparent reluctance to award damages “…in the case of the death of young children without a job or other source of income…” (at 407) could reasonably be interpreted to result from the difficulty of calculating such damages.
To conclude, it appears that the estate will be able to claim damages for loss of earnings when the deceased had a well-established earnings stream. It is not yet known, however, where the line will be drawn between these cases and those in which no clear earnings pattern has been established. The Court will have an opportunity to clarify this issue later this year when it is scheduled to hear an appeal of Duncan.