Case Review

CASE: Saadati v. Moorhead, 2017 SCC 28

RE: Torts – Negligence – Motor Vehicle – Mental Injury – Damages

A finding of legally compensable mental injury need not rest, in whole or in part, on the claimant proving a recognized psychiatric illness via expert witness or diagnosis

Written by: Scott Cannon


This appeal deals with the application of the common law of negligence to claims for mental injury. The majority decision, led by Justice Brown, filled a void in Tort law that previously required the establishment of a recognized psychiatric illness in mental injury claims. In this case, the court concluded that claimants only need to establish a serious and prolonged disturbance above the ordinary annoyances, anxieties and fears of life for a determination of mental injury. This principle replaced the prior requirements of needing a concrete expert diagnosis to pursue a claim for mental suffering.

The facts of the case are as follows. Mohen Saadati, a tractor-truck driver, was hit by a vehicle driven by Grant Moorhead, suffering chronic pain as a result. This incident was the second in a series of five motor vehicle collisions involving Saadati. Saadati sued Moorehead and the other defendants in negligence. Saadati pursued damages for general loss and past income loss.

At trial, the judge found that the accident caused Saadati’s psychological injuries. The judge did not base his decision on an identified medical diagnosis or expert evidence, but rather relied on the testimony of Saadati’s friends and family.

The Court of Appeal overturned the trial decision on the basis that Saadati had not established, by expert evidence, a medically documented psychiatric or psychological injury.

The Supreme Court of Canada was tasked with answering the narrow question of whether it is strictly necessary, to support a finding of a legally compensable mental injury, for a claimant to present expert evidence or other proof of a recognized psychiatric illness, and what constituted mental injury and how it may be proven.

Justice Brown, writing for the Supreme Court, began by addressing the treatment of mental illness in the law. In Miner v. Canadian Pacific Railway Co. (in 1911), the court classified mental injury as “not derived through the senses, but [as] a product of the imagination”. Mental injury was not compensable unless it accompanied a physical injury. Over time this changed, and by Hinz v. Berry (in 1970), the court concluded, “no damages are awarded for grief or sorrow caused by a person’s death. No damages are to be given for the worry about the children, or for the financial strain or stress, or the difficulties of adjusting to a new life. Damages are, however, recoverable for nervous shock, or, to put it in medical terms, for a recognisable psychiatric illness.”

Negligence claims require a claimant to prove a duty of care, a breach of duty, and financial loss. Justice Brown suggested that proving these elements created a significant hurdle for those claiming mental injury when paired with the additional requirement of having to show a recognized psychiatric illness.

Justice Brown noted that current findings of psychiatric illness are done in accordance with a “considerable degree of international agreement on the classification of mental disorders and their diagnostic criteria”. This agreement on classification is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM”), published by the American Psychiatric Association. Using the DSM for diagnosis has been rationalized as maintaining objectivity, certainty, and preventing vague liability. Justice Brown noted, however, that even in the psychiatric profession, there is controversy in diagnosis, and suggested that classification in the DSM are not based on concrete objectivity, but on a flowing spectrum. For example, homosexuality was classified as disorder until 1973 and only removed fully from the DSM in 1987, and post-traumatic stress disorder was only identified as an illness starting in 1980. Justice Brown conceded that for treatment purposes, an accurate diagnosis is important. However, in law, a trier of fact judging a claim of mental injury should direct their attention to the level of harm that the claimant’s symptoms represent, rather than the label attached to them.

Regarding the argument that using the standard of “a recognizable psychiatric illness” was necessary to prevent indeterminate liability, Justice Brown contended that the general legal test for negligence (duty, breach, and damages) was sufficient to combat the possibility of a feigned or exaggerated claim. Liability is a question of fact, and best left to the analysis and application of law by the court.

Justice Brown conceded that muscle, tissue, and bone ailments are objectively certifiable as compared to mental injury. To deal with this difference, Justice Brown concluded that for a mental injury claims the injury must be “serious and prolonged, and rise(s) above the ordinary annoyances, anxieties and fears” that are accompanied by living in civil society. This principle sets a specific standard for mental injury, while also placing it on a level playing field with the requirements for physical injury claims.

Justice Brown therefore concluded that expert evidence, while useful in determining mental injury, and of assistance to the court, expert evidence or diagnosis is not required to prove mental injury as a matter of law.

Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s decision in Saadati, mental injury claims will still likely involve “a battle of experts,” as the law will always value objectivity and certainty. However, this decision is a significant win for victims of psychological injuries. Many victims of psychological injury (be it car accidents, or medical malpractice, or institutional sexual abuse, or other forms of mental trauma) experience significant harm, but it can be difficult to find medical experts able to appropriately classify their injury. In some cases, it may be because there is no acknowledged medical injury. Because of the Saadati case, plaintiffs can now pursue a claim for compensation for psychological injuries where before they may not have, due to the previous higher standards required to prove injury.




Scott Cannon is a first-year articling student with Pullan Kammerloch Frohlinger in Morden, Manitoba, graduating from University of Manitoba Robson Hall Law School in 2017.