Supreme Court comments on motions to strike

The Supreme Court recently commented on motions to strike on the basis there is no reasonable cause of action. In R. v. Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2011 SCC 42, Imperial Tobacco is a defendant in two cases in British Columbia: one where the government seeks to recover the cost of medical treatment provided to smokers, and the second a class action pertaining to class members who purchased “light” or “mild” cigarettes. Imperial Tobacco issued third party claims against the federal government, alleging negligent misrepresentation, negligent design and failure to warn. In addition, Imperial alleges Canada was a “manufacturer” or “supplier” of cigarettes.

The Supreme Court held that all of the third party claims failed to disclose a reasonable cause of action and struck them. The Court confirmed that the test remains whether the claim has no reasonable chance of success. The purpose of the test is described as follows:

[19] The power to strike out claims that have no reasonable prospect of success is a valuable housekeeping measure essential to effective and fair litigation. It unclutters the proceedings, weeding out the hopeless claims and ensuring that those that have some chance of success go on to trial.

[20] This promotes two goods — efficiency in the conduct of the litigation and correct results. Striking out claims that have no reasonable prospect of success promotes litigation efficiency, reducing time and cost. The litigants can focus on serious claims, without devoting days and sometimes weeks of evidence and argument to claims that are in any event hopeless. The same applies to judges and juries, whose attention is focused where it should be — on claims that have a reasonable chance of success. The efficiency gained by weeding out unmeritorious claims in turn contributes to better justice. The more the evidence and arguments are trained on the real issues, the more likely it is that the trial process will successfully come to grips with the parties’ respective positions on those issues and the merits of the case.

[21] Valuable as it is, the motion to strike is a tool that must be used with care. The law is not static and unchanging. Actions that yesterday were deemed hopeless may tomorrow succeed. Before Donoghue v. Stevenson, [1932] A.C. 562 (H.L.) introduced a general duty of care to one’s neighbour premised on foreseeability, few would have predicted that, absent a contractual relationship, a bottling company could be held liable for physical injury and emotional trauma resulting from a snail in a bottle of ginger beer. Before Hedley Byrne & Co. v. Heller & Partners Ltd., [1963] 2 All E.R. 575 (H.L.), a tort action for negligent misstatement would have been regarded as incapable of success. The history of our law reveals that often new developments in the law first surface on motions to strike or similar preliminary motions, like the one at issue in Donoghue v. Stevenson. Therefore, on a motion to strike, it is not determinative that the law has not yet recognized the particular claim. The court must rather ask whether, assuming the facts pleaded are true, there is a reasonable prospect that the claim will succeed. The approach must be generous and err on the side of permitting a novel but arguable claim to proceed to trial.

Imperial argued that the motion to strike should be dismissed on the basis that future evidence might reveal more evidence against the government. The Court rejected this argument; the focus is on the pleadings, not the evidence and a judge cannot consider what future evidence might or might not show.

In addition to a useful summary of the test on a motion to strike, the Court goes through the Anns duty of care analysis. The decision is a good synopsis of these important principles.

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