Canada v. Lameman: SCC opines on summary judgment and statute of limitations
On April 3, the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”), in a decision penned by ‘THE COURT,’ allowed the appeal in Canada (AG) v Lameman,  1 SCR 372 (“Lameman”).
The plaintiffs in this case were individuals who claimed to be descendants of the Papaschase Band, who, it is alleged, were unfairly treated by the Crown when the Band surrendered its treaty rights and rights connected with their Reserve in the late 19th century. The plaintiffs claimed breach of fiduciary duty, fraudulent and malicious behaviour, and treaty breach. (More on the subject of the dispute can be found at a National Post story by Karen Kleiss [(3 April 2008) online: <www.nationalpost.com>]).
The Crown sought summary judgment for dismissal on three grounds: (1) that there was no genuine issue for trial; (2) the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the action; and (3) the claims were barred by the Alberta Limitations of Actions Act, RSA 2000, c L-12.
As Professor Russ Brown notes, [University of Alberta Law Blog (4 April 2008) online: <www.ualbertalaw.typepad.com>] this is a useful case for civil procedure students. In restoring the trial judge’s decision to dismiss the case, the SCC provides useful guidance for the summary judgment rule. At para. 10, they write
The summary judgment rule serves an important purpose in the civil litigation system. It prevents claims or defences that have no chance of success from proceeding to trial. Trying unmeritorious claims imposes a heavy price in terms of time and cost on the parties to the litigation and on the justice system. It is essential to the proper operation of the justice system and beneficial to the parties that claims that have no chance of success be weeded out at an early stage. Conversely, it is essential to justice that claims disclosing real issues that may be successful proceed to trial.
Continuing at para. 11, they provide a nice summary of the existing caselaw,
For this reason, the bar on a motion for summary judgment is high. The defendant who seeks summary dismissal bears the evidentiary burden of showing that there is “no genuine issue of material fact requiring trial”: Guarantee Co. of North America v Gordon Capital Corp.,  3 SCR 423, at para. 27. The defendant must prove this; it cannot rely on mere allegations or the pleadings: 1061590 Ontario Ltd v Ontario Jockey Club (1995), 21 OR (3d) 547 (CA); Tucson Properties Ltd v Sentry Resources Ltd (1982), 22 Alta. LR (2d) 44 (QB (Master)), at pp. 46-47. If the defendant does prove this, the plaintiff must either refute or counter the defendant’s evidence, or risk summary dismissal: Murphy Oil Co v Predator Corp, (2004), 365 A.R. 326, 2004 ABQB 688, at p. 331, aff’d (2006), 55 Alta. LR (4th) 1, 2006 ABCA 69. Each side must “put its best foot forward” with respect to the existence or non-existence of material issues to be tried: Transamerica Life Insurance Co of Canada v Canada Life Assurance Co, (1996), 28 OR (3d) 423 (Gen Div), at p. 434; Goudie v Ottawa (City),  1 SCR 141, 2003 SCC 14, at para. 32. The chambers judge may make inferences of fact based on the undisputed facts before the court, as long as the inferences are strongly supported by the facts: Guarantee Co of North America, at para. 30.
And at para. 19, they further opine on the type of evidence that should be accepted,
A summary judgment motion cannot be defeated by vague references to what may be adduced in the future, if the matter is allowed to proceed. To accept that proposition would be to undermine the rationale of the rule. A motion for summary judgment must be judged on the basis of the pleadings and materials actually before the judge, not on suppositions about what might be pleaded or proved in the future.
With respect to the limitation periods, the SCC writes at para. 13,
The policy behind limitation periods is to strike a balance between protecting the defendant’s entitlement, after a time, to organize his affairs without fearing a suit, and treating the plaintiff fairly with regard to his circumstances.
On the facts in Lameman, the SCC found that the plaintiffs had an opportunity to bring an action in the 1970s, but did not. By not responding to these claims of knowledge, it was held that “the only available inference is that these causes of action became discoverable within the meaning of the Limitation of Actions Act in the 1970s, and that the claims are now statute-barred.” (para. 18)
For all the civil litigators watching (and anyone writing a civil procedure exam), this is certainly a handy case to have around.