Light at the End of the Tunnel: Tragic Murder-Suicide Case Prompts SCC to allow Punitive Damages in de Montigny v Brossard (Succession)

The tragic case of a father killing his estranged family, then himself, underlies the Supreme Court of Canada’s (“SCC”) recent decision in de Montigny v Brossard (Succession), [2010] 3 SCR 64. In this case, the SCC allowed punitive damages in the absence of a deterrent effect. This case marks a turning point in how courts are to rationalize punitive awards.

It is unnecessary to dwell on the specific facts of this murder-suicide. All that is necessary to know is that the heirs of the deceased brought an action for civil liability against the father’s succession, claiming compensatory and punitive damages. Both the Quebec Superior Court and Court of Appeal refused to award compensation for the mother’s pain, suffering and loss of expectation of life because evidence showed that she died almost instantaneously. The seemingly arbitrary nature of abstract legal tests for different heads of damages is illustrated in the rule relied upon by the lower courts. A court cannot award compensatory damages unless the two part test outlined in Pantel v Air Canada, [1975] 1 SCR 472, was satisfied: first, a sufficiently long period of time must elapse between the wrongful fact and the death; and second, the victim must have actually felt pain. The rationale for this test was discussed in Driver et al. v Coca Cola Ltd., [1961] SCR 201, which held that damages suffered by a victim passes onto his heirs, but the shortening of life cannot be included in damages because it is caused by the death. If death is instantaneous, the victim did not suffer, and thus the heirs cannot claim damages for pain and suffering, when the victim obviously did not suffer.

Trudel J. for the Quebec Superior Court also held that punitive damages could not be awarded because they are “incidental” to an award of compensatory damages for moral or material prejudice. This second rule originates from the SCC’s decision in Béliveau St‑Jacques v Fédération des employées et employés de services publics inc., [1996] 2 SCR 345 [Beliveau St-Jacques]. Like the case at hand, Beliveau St-Jacques involved a claim for punitive damages based on s. 49 of the under the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, RSQ, c C-12 [Quebec Charter]. In that case, the majority (5-2) held that an action for punitive damages based s. 49 of the Quebec Charter cannot be dissociated from the principles of civil liability. Such an action can only be incidental to a principal action seeking compensation for moral or material prejudice. It is for that reason that the absence of compensatory damages meant that the heirs could not get punitive damages. Trudel J. also noted that punitive damages could not be awarded because the death of the father, the wrongdoer, meant that there was no deterrent component to the award.

Rays of Light at the End of this Dark Tunnel

Although the SCC stuck to the original amounts of damages awarded, it did take a progressive step forward and hold that the heirs could receive punitive damages despite the death of the wrongdoer.

LeBel J. writing for the unanimous SCC distinguished Béliveau St‑Jacques on the basis that it was a case involving a public compensation system. He wrote,

Outside that context, there is no reason not to recognize the autonomous nature of exemplary [or punitive] damages and thus give this remedy the full scope and flexibility that its incorporation into the [Quebec] Charter demands.  I note that the [Quebec] Charter’s quasi‑constitutional status means that it prevails over general legal rules in the Quebec normative order.  If the autonomy of the right to exemplary damages conferred by the [Quebec] Charter is denied by imposing on those asserting it the additional burden of first proving that they are entitled to bring an action that they may not necessarily wish or be able to bring, this amounts to making the implementation of [Quebec] Charter rights and freedoms subject to the rules applicable to civil law actions.  There is no justification for maintaining this obstacle.

In addition to disentangling punitive damages from compensatory damages, the SCC also broadened the scope for rationalizing punitive damages. The latter type of damages is designed to demonstrate society’s disapproval of a person’s conduct, and thus focuses on an assessment of the conduct as opposed to the extent  to which  compensation is required for reparation or actual prejudice. LeBel J. criticized the Quebec courts’ approach to punitive damages  as being “strict” and “narrow” and failing to recognize the broader function of such damages: punishment, deterrence and denunciation. At paragraph 53, denunciation is recognized as an objective of exemplary damages in Quebec civil law.

Having expanded the functions of punitive damages, the SCC then held that punitive damages should be awarded because the father intentionally and unlawfully interfered with his family’s right to life under the Charter.

In the greater scheme of life, the SCC’s decision will not bring back the innocent lives lost. It will not restore the families who have been broken by this tragedy. Nonetheless, the SCC’s progressive expansion of the functions of punitive damages does have some significance. This development, albeit, relatively trivial in an objective sense, marks a legal triumph infused with sentimental value, over the abstract and seemingly arbitrary lines that delineate between liability and no liability.

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