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The Queen (Can) v Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, [1983] 1 SCR 205 (Link)

Facts:

Saskatchewan Wheat Pool (SWP) delivered infested wheat to the Canadian Wheat Board, in violation of s. 86(c) of the Canadian Grain Act. The statute made no reference to using civil liability for breach of its provisions. The board did not make claim in common law negligence, but sought damages for breach of s.86(c).

Issue(s):

Can a civil cause of action be brought for breach of a statutory duty?
** If yes, then: Is the liability for breach absolute, or can D be absolved of liability if the failure to perform the duty was through no fault of their own?

Ratio:

Canada does not recognize a common law tort of statutory breach
** 1) Civil Consequences of breach of statute should be subsumed in the law of negligence
** 2) The notion of a nominate tort of statutory breach giving a right to recovery merely on proof of breach and damages should be rejected, as should the view that unexcused breach constitutes negligence per se giving rise to absolute liability
** 3) Proof of statutory breach, causative of damages, may be evidence of negligence
** 4) The statutory formulation of the duty may afford a specific, and useful, standard of reasonable conduct

Analysis:

Generally, there are two relevant systems: US and UK

UK System: new nominate tort of statutory breach
** Where a public law penalty was provided for in statute, a private civil action would not automatically arise
** In UK the cause of action rests on proof that the legislature intended that violation of the right or interest conferred by the statute was to be treated as tortious?
** This system is considered capricious and arbitrary, “judicial legislation” at its worst, as it led to decisions made on insignificant details of phraseology
** A test emerged: whether the duty created by statute is owed to the state, and only incidentally to the individual or vice versa.
*** 1) Is the purpose of the statute to protect a certain class of individuals (and not all the public)?
*** 2) Is the injury suffered of a kind to which legislation was seeking to prevent

US System: assimilate civil responsibility for statutory breach into the general law of negligence
** Recovery of damages for injury due to violation of the statute, rest on common law principles: Proposes the formulation of specific standards for violation, instead of unformulated standard of reasonable conduct
** Spectrum of views
*** One end (Majority View in US): Breach of statutory duty may constitute negligence per se. Once statute is determined to be applicable, an unexcused violation is conclusive of negligence. Standard of Conduct is that of a reasonable man when legislation’s purpose is at least in part to protect the class of the persons interest and the interest from harmed and from the type and kind of harm
*** Other end(Minority View in US): breach is merely evidence of negligence: Breach may be evidence considered totally irrelevant, merely relevant, or prima facie evidence of negligence. This view is due to application to criminal law, technical defences available in criminal are not available in civil law. Purpose of criminal statute (deterrence and punitive) very different from compensatory principle of tort

Canadian Perspective
** Traditionally Canadian courts have used both systems
** But generally: The breach of statutory provision is prima facie evidence of negligence

Court's Reasoning:
Negligence: the purpose is to shift loss to a defendant who has been at fault, to discourage such acts.
** But holding defendant who breached a statutory duty unwittingly is not defensible
** When statute has a strictly admonitory (to warn) penalty, then creating liability in such circumstances would create liability without fault
*** In such cases creating civil liability would make consequences not the statutes penalty but the damages for recovery
*** Minimal fault may lead to large liability in damages
*** Inconsequential violations should not be subject to civil liability, but left to criminal fines
** Duty imposed by the act is not absolute, requirements to show how failure to comply arose or whether D was guilty of any failure to take reasonable care to comply must be met
** All of the grain collected at The Pool came from the Wheat Board’s agents; to impose a heavy fine on the Pool without fault would seem to violate fundamental fairness.
** In the case at bar, negligence is neither pleaded nor proven -- the action must fail.

Holding:

Appeal dismissed in favour of SWP.


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