Expert Evidence at Trial

The Divisional Court has released an important decision with respect to expert evidence.  In Westerhof v. Gee (Estate), 2013 ONSC 2093 (Div. Ct.), a jury awarded the plaintiff $22,000 in general damages and $13,000 for loss of income.  The trial judge, however, dismissed the claim on the basis that it did not meet threshold.  The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the trial judge erred by restricting the plaintiff's expert witnesses.  A number of treating practitioners were not permitted to give evidence about diagnosis or prognosis, two accident benefits assessors were not permitted to give opinion evidence, a neurologist was not permitted to give evidence regarding psychiatric or psychological issues, and opinions contained in MRI reports were redacted.

The appeal was dismissed.  The Court discussed a number of cases dealing with r. 53.03 and r. 4.1.01, which provide a framework for the duties of experts.  The key distinction is whether the evidence is factual or opinion evidence; if it is opinion evidence, compliance with r. 53.03 is required.  As a result, it was correct for the trial judge to exclude the evidence.  A treating physician could offer evidence with respect to observations of the plaintiff or the treatment provided, but once such a witness seeks to offer opinions on the cause of the injury, its pathology or prognosis, the evidence enters into the realm of opinion evidence requiring compliance with r. 53.03.

Westerhof provides much-needed guidance regarding expert witnesses.  It will be interesting to see whether the number of treating practitioners testifying decreases as a result of the ruling.  The plaintiff's treating practitioners will now be held to a higher standard, and there may be an opening to argue that a practitioner is an advocate rather than impartial witness.

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