Disability Insurance: Expansion of Special Costs
A recent BC Court of Appeal case, Tanious v. The Empire Life Insurance Company, 2019 BCCA 329 [Tanious], gives disability insurance claimants who take their insurers to court greater prospects of obtaining special costs against their insurer, even absent malicious conduct. However, the specific details of the case are very important. This article analyses Tanious with a view to determining the key requirements that will need to be met in future cases to obtain awards of special costs. Leave to appeal Tanious to the Supreme Court of Canada was denied.
Ms. Tanious was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis shortly before beginning a new job. She nonetheless worked at that job for seven years before ceasing work and claiming disability benefits that she was entitled to through her employment. Following her diagnosis, she developed depression and anxiety, and about a year before ceasing work she started using illicit methamphetamines to cope with her deteriorating cognitive capabilities. The insurer, Empire Life, denied that she became disabled during her employment, and further argued that her substance use disentitled her to benefits. At trial, Mr. Justice N. Brown found that she was entitled to disability benefits, and further awarded her $15,000 for aggravated damages for mental distress, loss of peace of mind and of dignity as a person from Empire Life’s refusal to pay benefits.
At the subsequent costs hearing, Brown J. awarded special costs even though the plaintiff conceded that Empire Life did not commit any litigation misconduct. It is this award that was subject to appeal.
The Appeal of Special Costs
The costs scheme in British Columbia is statutory; Rule 14-1 of the Supreme Court Civil Rules sets out the framework for cost awards. It provides that the court may award special costs, but does not set out the circumstances in which they may be awarded. Generally, special costs are only awarded in cases where there has been litigation misconduct. However, there are exceptions, though these are rarely applied. The Tanious case is an example of one such exception.
In order to justify a special costs award, the Court of Appeal stated that it is insufficient to simply have a large discrepancy between taxable costs and actual legal costs. There must be some other “unusual feature” in the case, such as “special importance, difficulty or complexity associated with the litigation” (para. 54). The Court cited a handful of examples where special costs had been awarded despite the lack of evidence of misconduct, and explicitly reiterated that in these cases any award of special costs must be made on a principled basis.
Typically, the objectives of costs awards are to provide the winning party with some degree of indemnity for the costs it has incurred during the litigation. However, the Court of Appeal also recognized that costs awards “encourage settlement, deter frivolous actions or defences and sanction unreasonable conduct committed in the course of litigation” (para. 36). Significantly, the Court also indicated that in some instances, “costs may be awarded to enhance access to justice, mitigate severe inequality between litigants and encourage socially desirable conduct” (para. 36).
The Court cited the leading case of Asselstine v. Manufacturers Life Insurance Co., 2005 BCCA 465, which provides that in the context of these objectives, “the application of ordinary costs rules usually produces a just result,” but goes on to say that this does not mean “that the personal and financial circumstances of a litigant can never be relevant on a costs application” (para. 60). The Court acknowledged that such circumstances may come in to play in exceptional cases.
The Court went on to discuss other cases where special costs were “justified in the interests of justice” (para. 65). Given the circular nature of this proposal – that special costs awards are justified by justice – it is challenging to elucidate principled reasons for these awards when they are not related to reprehensible conduct. Instead, these cases are fact-specific and must be considered based on their own merits.
The Court included in its analysis two analogous cases out of the Court of Queen’s Bench in Alberta where special costs were awarded: Hennessy v. Horse Racing Alberta, 2007 ABQB 178, where a judicial review was required to defend the appellant’s livelihood and restore his reputation; and Meleshko v. Alberta, 2013 ABQB 468, where the appellant sought judicial review to reinstate long-term disability benefits, and punitive damages were not available. As well, the Court cited FIC Real Estate Fund Ltd. v. Phoenix Land Ventures Ltd., 2016 ABCA 303 for the proposition that special costs could be awarded if success in the litigation would otherwise “amount to a strictly pyrrhic victory” (para. 65).
The final significant case referenced in the appeal was Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, wherein the test for awarding special costs was refined by the Supreme Court of Canada, stating that “the plaintiffs must show that it would not have been possible to pursue the litigation with private funding” (para. 63). In these instances, it is not just to ask the individual litigants or their counsel to bear the cost of pursuing the claim.
Factors in Tanious in support of special costs
On its face, the trial judge in Tanious made the decision to award special costs on the basis of very few factors, none of which are unusual in a long term disability insurance case: the purpose of the insurance contract is to provide subsistence level income, and when the insurer failed to pay these benefits, the plaintiff had to bring a lawsuit, which cost money. However, the Court of Appeal recognized that when the trial judge’s reasons were read as a whole, it was apparent that he also considered “the nature of the case, including its unique characteristics and related litigation challenges, complexities and costs, together with Ms. Tanious’ personal and financial circumstances and her need for counsel as established by the evidence” (para. 21).
The particular litigation challenges of this case included several factors that added to the effort required by counsel. Ms. Tanious was a difficult client to represent. She could not meet at counsel’s office; counsel had to drive to her. Similarly, she could not review documents to prepare for an examination for discovery as it was too stressful, and she likely would not be able to remember what she had reviewed. Additionally, she attended hospital 33 times over the course of the case, and often called her counsel from hospital to ask for help with various other issues. Ms. Tanious attempted suicide more than once as her disease progressed; if she had died, her claim for benefits would have ended. In preparing for this case, it was difficult for counsel to predict what Ms. Tanious would say at trial.
Though the insurer did not commit misconduct, it could have acted better. The trial judge noted that the insurer made only a cursory response to Ms. Tanious’ initial application for disability benefits, but once in litigation, mounted a vigorous defence. In combination with Ms. Tanious’ poor mental health and declining cognitive abilities, the actions taken by the insurer necessitated that she obtain legal representation in order to pursue the benefits to which she was entitled.
Notably, Ms. Tanious had separate counsel for the costs hearing. This was perhaps because her original counsel had to testify at the hearing via affidavit as to the many special circumstances in Ms. Tanious’ case; s. 5.2-1 of the Code of Professional Conduct precludes counsel from testifying to controversial matters. Though it was not mentioned by the Court, as a practical matter, this ethical rule adds to the challenges of obtaining special costs.
The courts now recognize that in matters of insurance disputes and also in other exceptional situations, many people do not have access to justice unless they are able to retain counsel. Access to justice is recognized as being one of the policy objectives of the courts that thus far is not adequately being met (para. 81). As the consequences of these shortcomings become clearer, it may be possible to seek special costs as a means of ensuring adequate access to justice for members of otherwise underrepresented and vulnerable populations.
It can be difficult to make a financially viable practice taking long term disability cases to trial. While aggravated damages are sometimes awarded, they are typically small awards that are woefully insufficient in comparison to the costs of litigation. Punitive damages require misconduct on the part of the insurer. The risk of a special cost award, absent litigation misconduct, provides the plaintiff with more leverage in negotiations with an insurer, and may allow a plaintiff to recuperate the full benefits to which they are entitled, while also appropriately compensating their counsel.