We all know that claims up to $25,000 CAD can be heard in the small claims court. Correct? But do you know that there is a material difference between this monetary jurisdiction of $25,000 and the subject matter jurisdiction which essentially means the court having the authority to hear and decide upon the type of dispute raised.
There are two types of jurisdictional authorities: Subject matter jurisdiction and Monetary jurisdiction.
In Ahmed v. Canna Clinic Medicinal Society, 2018, The Honourable Madam Justice Fenlon, writing for the Court of Appeal for British Columbia confirmed:
In my view, and with respect, this submission fails to distinguish between subject matter jurisdiction ― the authority to hear and decide the type of dispute raised ― and the limits on the remedy in damages that may be granted if the claim is proved. The Provincial Court has subject matter jurisdiction to hear claims for money owed and for damages as provided for in the Small Claims Act, R.S.B.C. 1996 c. 430:
In a recent decision by the Court of Appeal for British Columbia, in addition to highlighting the difference between the two types of jurisdictions, the court also discussed (and rejected) postponement of the running of the limitation period where the plaintiff alleged that he developed cancer and was diagnosed with the same three years after the fire incident.
The facts of the case in Janus v. The Central Park Citizen Society, 2019 are as under:
On April 16, 2012, a fire broke out in an apartment building owned by the defendants (landlord/appellants). The plaintiff, Mr. Janus was a tenant in the building and resided down the hall from the unit in which the fire started.
April 15, 2014
A claim was filed by the (self-represented) plaintiff in the Provincial Court. A judge of that court dismissed the claim on March 16, 2015 on the basis that it involved a dispute between a landlord and tenant and was therefore under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Residential Tenancy Branch (“RTB”).
March 17, 2015
Mr. Janus (self-represented) commenced a proceeding in the RTB naming the Landlord as respondent. On August 25, 2015 that proceeding was dismissed without leave to reapply on the basis that the limitation period in the Residential Tenancy Act, S.B.C. 2002, c. 78 [RTA] had expired.
December 11, 2015
In September 2015, Mr. Janus was diagnosed with cancer, which he attributed to the smoke and asbestos inhalation he experienced during the fire. The defendant (self-represented) then filed a claim in the B.C. Supreme Court seeking damages for personal injuries resulting from exposure to smoke and asbestos dust, as well as damages for loss of personal property, alleging negligence against the landlord. This notice of civil claim filed by the defendant was his third attempt to have his claims adjudicated. The landlord applied to have the action dismissed on the basis of res judicata or, in the alternative, on the basis that the claim is barred by the expiry of the limitation period. The judge held that res judicata did not apply because the cause of action before the Supreme Court was not the same as the cause of action (alleging personal injuries/cancer) brought before the Provincial Court and the RTB. The judge however allowed postponement of the running of the limitation period, rejecting the landlord’s application to strike the plaintiff’s action, stating:
…..in my view a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position would not regard the facts as showing that he ought, in the circumstances, to be able to bring an action in this Court. It was not until the plaintiff developed cancer that he was aware of facts which, viewed objectively, established that he ought to bring an action in this Court, which he did shortly thereafter.
The Landlord appealed.
Did the judge err in concluding the claim was not barred by res judicata and in finding the limitation period had been postponed?
With respect to res judicata
Th trial judge reasoned that once Mr. Janus was diagnosed with cancer, the claim, if successful, would exceed the $35,000 award limit of both the Provincial Court and the RTB and was therefore outside their jurisdiction. The judge also noted that Mr. Janus could not have raised the cancer claim in those forums because he had not yet been diagnosed when he brought those proceedings.
Rejecting the above reasoning, the presiding judge at the court of appeal confirmed that a single cause of action cannot be split to be made into multiple proceedings i.e. suffering of different or more serious damages at a later time does not constitute or create a separate cause of action. Further the trial judge erred in her reasoning when she assumed that the claim no longer fell within the jurisdiction of the Provincial Court and the RTB. It was stated:
the judge in making this assumption failed to distinguish between subject matter jurisdiction and monetary jurisdiction. Whereas subject matter jurisdiction refers to the authority to hear and decide the type of dispute raised, monetary jurisdiction refers to the limits on the remedies and damages that may be granted if the claim is proved.
The distinction between subject matter jurisdiction and monetary jurisdiction is not, however, enough to dispose of the judge’s approach to the RTB’s jurisdiction. That is so because, in my view, the RTB did not have even subject matter jurisdiction over the claims as framed by Mr. Janus.
The court of appeal confirmed that RTB did not have the subject matter jurisdiction since this was a claim being pursued under negligence subject to the Occupier’s Liability Act.
With respect to the Limitation Period
The trial judge concluded that a party is not in a position to start a claim until he is fully aware of the extent of his injuries and the potential magnitude of a damage award so that he can select the optimal forum. Thus, until the plaintiff developed cancer, the limitation period did not begin to run.
Mr. Janus was unaware of “all the ingredients of [his] cause of action” until after his cancer was diagnosed.
Rejecting the above reasoning, The Honourable Madam Justice Fenlon, writing for the court of appeal, stated (Excerpts taken from different paragraphs):
ignorance of the extent of injury will not serve to postpone the running of the limitation period [see Craig v. Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, BCCA]
no question arises as to whether the plaintiff was psychologically and emotionally able to embark on litigation before the prescribed limitation period expired. Indeed, the record is entirely to the contrary: Mr. Janus commenced two proceedings and then began the underlying action in December 2015, three months after receiving his cancer diagnosis.
a limitation period can be postponed if the initial injury appears so trifling or transient that a reasonable person would not seek advice concerning a lawsuit until such time as the injury became serious enough to be actionable. Even before his cancer diagnosis, Mr. Janus held the view that his injuries were serious enough to pursue a lawsuit, and he did just that. There was, in my view, no basis on the facts of this case to find a postponement of the running of the limitation period. Ultimately, Mr. Janus is left without a remedy because he failed to appeal the decision of the Provincial Court dismissing his claim.
This result will no doubt seem unfair to Mr. Janus, especially as he started his claim within time only to be told by the Provincial Court that he was in the wrong forum. It will be little comfort to Mr. Janus to be told now that he should have appealed that decision. I acknowledge the challenges that self-represented litigants face in selecting the correct forum and in complying with limitations on the time within which to make claims and bring appeals.
The [trial] judge below was clearly alive to the unfortunate way in which Mr. Janus’s case had proceeded and made every effort to ameliorate that result. But in my view the harsh effect of the limitation period cannot be avoided on the facts of this case.
Jurisdictional and limitation issues, along with decisions on whether to appeal a verdict or not, are complex and best left with a subject matter expert. Had the claimant hired a competent counsel from day one, this claim may not have been dismissed since likely, the provincial court decision would have been appealed. On the flip side, its essential to know what you want to claim in damages. Had the injuries not being claimed until the cancer was developed, the limitation period may have been postponed for at least the “injury” portion of the claim.