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Athey v Leonati, [1996] 3 SCR 458 (Link)

Facts:

** Plaintiff had pre-existing back condition
** Suffered neck and back injuries in car crash that defendant negligently caused
** Doctor advised to begin exercising at the gym
** Plaintiff exercised and sustained a herniated disc, resulting in permanent disability

** At trial: accepted that the crash causally contributed to the disability; but reduced plaintiffs damages by 75% due to greater causal role of pre-existing back condition
** On appeal: upheld trial decision

Issue(s):

If the defendant’s negligence materially contributes to the plaintiff’s injury, is the defendant 100% liable for damages?

Ratio:

If the defendant’s negligence materially contributes to the plaintiff’s single indivisible injury, the defendant is liable and the plaintiff can recover 100% of the damages

Analysis:

Not necessary for the plaintiff to establish that the defendant’s negligence was the sole cause of the injury
** As long as defendant is part of the cause of injury, the defendant is liable (even if his act alone was not enough to create the injury)
** No basis for reduction of liability because of pre-existing conditions

Thin Skull and “Crumbling Skull” Doctrines
** Thin Skull doctrine: Makes the tortfeasor liable for the plaintiff’s injuries even if the injuries are unexpectedly severe owing to a pre-existing condition. The tortfeasor must take his or her victim as the tortfeasor finds the victim, and is therefore liable even though the plaintiff’s losses are more dramatic than they would be for the average person
** Crumbling Skull doctrine: Recognizes that the pre-existing condition was inherent in the plaintiff’s original position. The plaintiff need not put plaintiff in a position better than his original position; should not have to compensate for debilitating effects of pre-existing condition that the plaintiff would have experienced anyway; the defendant is liable for additional damage but not pre-existing damage

In case at bar
** No finding of measurable risk that the herniated disc would have occurred without the accident
** What happened at the gym was not a cause, it was an effect (it was the injury)
** Applicable principles:
*** If injuries in vehicle accident cause or contributed to the herniation, then defendant is fully liable
*** Plaintiff must prove causation through but for or material contribution test
** Trial judge indicated that it was necessary to have both the pre-existing condition AND the injuries from accident to cause hernation
*** There may have been other causes
*** But material contribution was sufficient

Holding:

Appeal allowed, plaintiff entitled to recover 100%


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