Concluding the sexual abuse and its impacts were “at the upper end of the worst-case scale”, an Ontario court has awarded a plaintiff $400,000 for non-pecuniary damages: D.S. v. Quesnelle, 2019 ONSC 3230. From ages 5 to 10, the plaintiff had endured horrendous weekly sexual assaults by his stepfather.
In making this award for pain and suffering, the court expressly chose not to be restricted by the ‘cap’ on non-pecuniary damages that the Supreme Court of Canada in its 1978 trilogy of decisions said should apply in catastrophic personal injury cases. This cap was set at $100,000 in 1978, but adjusted for inflation, it amounts to $368,000 in 2019 dollars.
It has long been recognized that the policy reasons for a ‘cap’ in catastrophic personal injury cases that result from accidents and negligent conduct simply do not apply to intentional misconduct like sexual assault, which is a distinctive wrong that causes unique harms and injuries. Unlike other unlawful conduct, sexual assault is a targeted and inherently violent form of abuse of power that humiliates, degrades and violates the dignity of those who experience it.
Notwithstanding its decision to introduce a ‘cap’ into Canadian law, the Supreme Court of Canada has accepted that there are circumstances in which it will not apply. For example, in the defamation context, there is no arbitrary limit on what a person who has suffered damage to reputation and dignity may be awarded as non-pecuniary damages: Hill v. Scientology of Toronto,  2 S.C.R. 1130.
In 1996, the British Columbia Court of Appeal extended the exception to a case of incest by a father against his daughter, finding the policy justifications for the ‘cap’ simply did not apply: S.F. v. F.G.C., 1996 CanLII 6597 (B.C.C.A.). Unlike with catastrophic personal injury, there is little risk that a plaintiff, who has been sexually assaulted and suffered devastating psychological harms as a result, will be ‘overcompensated’ because of already generous awards under pecuniary heads of damage, such as loss of earning capacity or cost of care, that are intended to provide lifetime economic security. Nor are awards in sexual assault cases ones that could negatively impact the public purse or cause enormous increases in insurance premiums, both concerns that informed the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to introduce a ‘cap’ on non-pecuniary damages for personal injury.
And yet it took more than two decades for an Ontario court to address the appropriateness of the ‘cap’ in the sexual abuse context. With the release of the decision in D.S. v. Quesnelle, we now have in Ontario an unequivocal statement that the ‘cap’ should not constrain damages for pain and suffering for sexual abuse, and an award that actually exceeds the amount of the cap. This is consistent with the trend towards greater recognition by society and by our courts of the depth of the harms caused by sexual violation and exploitation. While the claim in D.S. v. Quesnelle was undefended, the court’s decision should help pave the way for awards that reflect the full extent of the wrongs perpetrated and their consequences on individual survivors of sexual abuse. Courts need not feel artificially constrained by precedents that have either explicitly or implicitly been informed by the ‘cap’, or by the ‘cap’ itself.