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Why Representing Yourself is a Bad Idea


There are a surprisingly large number of Canadians who think they can represent themselves in court without the assistance of a lawyer. Self-represented litigants are increasingly seen in all kinds of civil matters. Although you may feel it is cheaper to handle your own case, the reality is that you are far less likely to prevail in such cases. You may even find yourself on the hook for a large cost award to the successful defendant.

Montague v. Toronto Transit Commission: Woman in Her 70s Struggles to Represent Herself in Jury Trial

For example, the Divisional Court of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice recently rejected a self-represented litigant’s attempt to overturn a jury verdict that went against her. The plaintiff, a woman in her 70s, sued the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) after allegedly suffering an accident while riding a city bus. According to her initial lawsuit, the plaintiff was riding the bus, together with a shopping cart, and as she moved to exit via the rear of the vehicle, the door “closed on [her] left hand with the shopping cart and [her] left foot.” The plaintiff maintained that the negligence of the bus driver — and by extension the TTC — caused her serious injury.

The plaintiff represented herself at trial, which was held before a jury in May 2017. She asked for $150,000 in damages. The defendant (the TTC) denied liability. Indeed, the TTC maintained there was insufficient evidence to prove that an accident had even taken place.

The trial proved to be a struggle for the self-represented plaintiff. At the outset, she attempted to summon three witnesses in support of her case. The trial judge quashes these summonses, however, in part because they were not served in accordance with the Court’s rules. In any event, the judge said the witnesses’ testimony was irrelevant to the issues raised in the plaintiff’s complaint.

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As for the evidence that was admitted at trial, the TTC introduced medical records describing the plaintiff’s condition prior to the accident. The plaintiff argued this was irrelevant. But to the contrary, the judge said it was relevant to the question of assessing what injuries the plaintiff suffered as a result of the accident, as the defendant would only be liable for damages to the extent necessary to restore the plaintiff to her pre-accident condition.

The defence presented further evidence illustrating the plaintiff’s extensive history of filing personal injury claims, dating back to at least 1991. This included at least one prior lawsuit against the TTC for a separate incident that allegedly occurred in 2009, about three years before the events giving rise to the present case. Defence counsel raised this prior history during its closing address to the jury, effectively implying that the plaintiff was fabricating her current allegations.

Ultimately, the jury found the TTC was not negligent in causing or contributing to any injury sustained by the plaintiff. More precisely, the jury said the plaintiff “put herself in a potentially hazardous situation” by choosing to exit the bus through the rear door. Even if the TTC was somehow negligent, the jury calculated the plaintiff’s actual damages at $0. In addition, the trial judge awarded approximately $34,000 in costs to the TTC.

Divisional Court Unsympathetic to Plaintiff’s Legal Struggles

The plaintiff appealed to the Divisional Court. Once again, the plaintiff represented herself. Before the three-judge appellate panel, the plaintiff principally challenged the trial judge’s numerous procedural and evidentiary decisions. But in a May 18 judgment, the Divisional Court found all of the plaintiff’s arguments lacked merit.

Among other issues, the plaintiff argued that the trial judge falsely told the jury that it would be asked questions prepared “in consultation with both parties.” It is common practice in Ontario courts for both sides to submit proposed questions to be used in screening jurors. The plaintiff’s complaint was that the judge only used the questions proposed by the defence.

As the Divisional Court explained, the trial judge had good reason to do this. The plaintiff’s proposed questions “were not in conformity with the Rules” of the Court. For example, the plaintiff’s document used an “incorrect title of proceedings” and did not properly identify the parties to the case. In contrast, the defence relied on model forms commonly used in Ontario civil trials. For that reason, the Divisional Court said it was proper for the trial judge to use “questions in the appropriate form.”

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At the end of the day, the Divisional Court said there was “sufficient evidence for the Jury to conclude that there was no damages” to the plaintiff and “no negligence on the part of the TTC.” Its verdict in favour of the defence was therefore not unreasonable. Nor was the trial judge’s award of costs to the defence unreasonable, especially considering the TTC actually offered to settle the plaintiff’s claims for $5,000 prior to trial. The plaintiff refused to enter into any kind of settlement talks. So not only was she left on the hook for the $34,000 in trial court costs, but the Divisional Court assessed an additional $10,000 in costs related to the appeal.

Speak to Preszler Injury Lawyers Before Rushing into Court on Your Own

One of the key reasons you should always speak to a lawyer following an accident is to obtain an honest assessment of your potential claim. Many accident victims are understandably motivated by their own sense of anger and loss. This can lead to a lack of perspective, especially when you are unfamiliar with how the legal system in Ontario actually works. The law in Ontario relating to motor vehicle accidents is complex and is often skewed in favour of the defendant, and more specifically, the insurance industry.

If you have been injured in any kind of accident and suspect third-party negligence is to blame, call us or contact us online today to schedule a free initial consultation.

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