LETTER OF THE LAW: Time to change law limiting punitive damages
Mr. Muzzo was speeding and blew through a stop sign before crashing into the side of a minivan killing nine-year-old Daniel Neville-Lake, his five-year-old brother Harrison, their two-year-old sister Milly and the children’s 65-year-old grandfather, Gary Neville.
The children’s grandmother, Neirza Neville and great-grandmother, Josefina Fria, were also seriously hurt in the Vaughn collision.
Mr. Muzzo was charged with impaired driving causing death and bodily harm. He pled guilty. In March 2016, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison—the most severe penalty ever in Canada for a drunk driver with no previous criminal record. He is also prohibited from driving for 10 years.
The family of the deceased have brought a legal action for their massive losses. The amount claimed in the lawsuit is reported to be $25 million, of which a good chunk is likely for punitive damages.
And sadly, unless the Courts change the law as it currently stands, there will be little, if any punitive damages awarded to the family.
In Canada, punitive damages are awarded to meet the objective of punishment, deterrence and denunciation of the defendant’s conduct and not to compensate the plaintiff.
Courts only allow punitive damages in exceptional cases. This is certainly one that will attract punitive damages. The problem is that a key factor in awarding punitive damages is whether punishment has already been imposed in a separate proceeding for the same misconduct.
In the present case, Mr. Muzzo received what is described as the most severe criminal sentence to date for impaired driving causing death for someone without a prior criminal record.
On these facts, notwithstanding the horrible tragedy caused by Mr. Muzzo and his family’s great wealth, unless the Courts are prepared to change the law, little if any punitive damages will be awarded.
As a precedent we can look back to the McIntyre v. Grigg case from 2006.
In that case, professional football player with the Hamilton Tiger Cats, Andrew Grigg become severely intoxicated and got behind the wheel of his vehicle. He was speeding and drove through a stop sign, making a reckless wide right-hand turn before striking Andrea McIntyre, a young McMaster University student-athlete.
Andrea suffered severe and catastrophic injuries, including a brain injury that would end her athletic career and require her to receive care for the rest of her life.
Mr. Grigg was charged with impaired driving causing bodily harm. The investigating police officer breached his constitutional right to speak to a lawyer so the criminal charge was dropped and he pled guilty to careless driving, ultimately receiving a $500 fine.
In that case, the trial judge allowed the jury to consider punitive damages and the jury awarded $100,000. On appeal, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the decision to allow the jury to consider punitive damages, but reduced the jury’s punitive damages award to $20,000.
How is this a deterrent? How does this paltry amount demonstrate denunciation for the conduct of driving while severely impaired?
This is the leading case and will greatly influence what happens in the Marco Muzzo case. If the law doesn’t change, the trial judge will have no choice but to award minimal, if any punitive damages.
It’s more likely than not that this case will never see the inside of a courtroom. But if it does, I hope that the trial judge and the Court of Appeal take the opportunity to rewrite the law on punitive damages and allow a meaningful amount.
At the very least, if a jury is deciding the issue, let the jury decide and don’t arbitrarily reduce the amount after the decision has been made.
It is time for a change.
Kristian Bonn is a personal injury lawyer and partner at Bonn Law. He grew up in Trenton, works in Belleville and Trenton and lives just over the Bay Bridge in Prince Edward County.
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