Ontario law entitles a plaintiff to recover damages from a defendant who negligently injures him or her. The goal of the law is to return the plaintiff to the original position — that is, the position the plaintiff would have been in had the injury not occurred.
For some kinds of damages, like medical bills or other expenditures that leave a paper trail, determining the amount is straightforward. But for non-pecuniary damages — things like pain and suffering, for which no receipt is ever issued — the question becomes more complicated, and courts look to a number of factors in setting the proper amount.
One of those factors is age. Historically, defendants in personal injury lawsuits in Ontario have tried to argue that an elderly plaintiff should recover less than a younger plaintiff, because the older plaintiff has less time in which to suffer the effects of his or her injury. Fortunately, courts in Canada have rejected that argument, applying a contrary principle called the Golden Years Doctrine.
The Golden Years Doctrine recognizes that the same injury can have a much greater impact on an elderly plaintiff than on a younger one, because the older plaintiff has fewer opportunities to adjust his or her life to compensate for the injury than the younger plaintiff. To understand the Golden Years Doctrine in more detail, we should take a quick trip out west to British Columbia.
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Lessons of the Golden Years Doctrine from British Columbia
Ontario courts have applied the Golden Years Doctrine in appropriate cases, but the courts in British Columbia have been at the forefront in developing the doctrine. In fact, when arguing over the application of the doctrine, Ontario plaintiffs and defendants often rely on British Columbia cases as much as Ontario precedent.
Because of this, we should take some time to consider how British Columbia courts have applied the Golden Years Doctrine before looking at what it means for Ontarians.
1. Physical injuries may have a greater impact on an older person than on a younger person.
The Golden Years Doctrine was introduced to Canadian courts in June 1994, when Justice Fraser of the Supreme Court of British Columbia decided the case of Giles v. Canada. In Giles, the plaintiff was seriously injured when her car was struck by a speeding police car that did not have its sirens on.
The plaintiff, who was in her mid-70s at the time of the collision, spent a month in the hospital. She suffered from a fractured nose and fractures in her legs and chest. Before the accident, the court noted, she had been “nimble and agile,” enjoying a “vibrant, fun-loving, active and serene” life. As a result of her injuries, however, she experienced difficulty moving around, and “lost the courage to be independent.”
The defendants in Giles argued that the plaintiff’s damages had to be reduced because of her advanced age. They cited a case in which an 88-year-old man had his damages reduced because of “the necessarily limited duration of [his] future suffering.”
The court rejected the analogy, pointing out a “competing consideration” that had to be factored in: what has come to be known as the Golden Years Doctrine. Quoting an English case, the court wrote:
[W]hen one has a person in advancing years, in some respects an impairment of movement may perhaps be more serious than it is with a younger person. . . . [A]s one advances in life one’s pleasures and activities particularly do become more limited, and any substantial impairment in the limited amount of activity and movement . . . becomes all the more serious on that account.
Accordingly, the court awarded the plaintiff $75,000, refusing to reduce her damages as the defendants requested.
2. The Golden Years Doctrine must be balanced against countervailing factors.
Importantly, even the court in Giles recognized that the effect of old age on a person’s damages requires a balancing act. The Golden Years Doctrine isn’t a be-all, end-all argument that means an elderly plaintiff gets enhanced damages as compared to a younger plaintiff with similar injuries.
More recent cases have made that balancing act more explicit. For example, in Johal v. Radek, the British Columbia court surveyed cases discussing the effect of the Golden Years Doctrine:
Some cases rely on the “Golden Years” doctrine, which suggests that an injury may have a greater impact on an older person, whose activities are already constrained by age, than on a younger person who may be active in other respects . . . . Other cases suggest that the competing considerations of the plaintiff’s age and the application of the “Golden Years” doctrine may balance each other out.
The Johal court agreed with the latter perspective.
Application of the Golden Years Doctrine in Ontario
Although the Golden Years Doctrine has received the most detailed analysis in British Columbia, Ontario courts have recognized its application in appropriate cases. For example, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice implicitly applied the doctrine in Wilson Estate v. Byrne.
In Wilson, the plaintiffs argued (based in part on Giles) that “physical injuries can be even more damaging when they occur near the end of one’s life.” Relying on the Golden Years Doctrine, the plaintiffs claimed damages of $85,000. The defendant disputed that amount, arguing that $50,000 would be more appropriate.
In the end, the Ontario court awarded the plaintiffs $75,000 — much closer to their Golden-Years-based figure than to the defendant’s suggestion.
And Wilson isn’t the only example. In Nusinowitz v. Ontario, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, relying on the same English case as the British Columbia court in Giles, also applied the Golden Years Doctrine in determining the appropriate amount of damages.
(We bring up Nusinowitz because it also discussed the “Thin Skull” and “Crumbling Skull” doctrines that we have covered before. In some ways, the Golden Years Doctrine and the countervailing principles that may offset it are analogous to those more general concepts.)
What the Golden Years Doctrine Means for You
The Golden Years Doctrine is an important protection for elderly plaintiffs and their loved ones in Ontario personal injury lawsuits. It means that negligent defendants don’t get to shortchange those that they injure just because of advanced age. The law recognizes the unique additional harms caused by physical injuries to older Ontarians, and requires that they be compensated for those harms.
Yet, recognition of the Golden Years Doctrine does not mean that defendants do not argue for decreased damages. The doctrine itself may be counterbalanced by other factors, as we explored above, and defendants rely on cases emphasizing those other factors to try to limit their liability. By working with the experienced personal injury lawyers of Preszler Law Firm in Ontario, you and your loved ones can help protect yourselves against such opportunistic arguments and ensure you receive everything the law entitles you to.