A nod to Weir-Jones and a nudge for summary judgment in Alberta

Hannam v Medicine Hat School District No. 76

5 minute read
29 October 2020

The Alberta Court of Appeal has released another decision emphasizing that summary judgments and dismissals are valuable and under-utilized tools at the profession's disposal, particularly given the Court's recent endorsement in Weir-Jones.

On September 25, 2020, the Court of Appeal released its decision in Hannam v Medicine Hat School District No. 76. The ABCA granted Medicine Hat School District No. 76's ("MHSD") appeal against a pre Weir-Jones Court of Queen's Bench order dismissing MHSD's application for summary dismissal of the Plaintiff's slip-and-fall action. In doing so, the ABCA undertook a thorough review of the law with respect to summary judgment and dismissal.

The facts of the case and its progress to the Court of Appeal are straightforward. A sudden change in temperature created slippery conditions on the River Heights Elementary school's sidewalk. Shortly after the school custodian began to sand the sidewalk, Ms. Hannam, who was following behind him, slipped, fell and broke her ankle. She commenced legal proceedings against MHSD seeking damages for negligence.  Master Robertson granted MHSD's application for summary dismissal on the basis that MHSD and the custodian acted reasonably to make the premises safe given the circumstances. On December 7, 2018, Justice Miller of the Court of Queen's Bench allowed Ms. Hannam's appeal of Master Robertson's decision on the basis that there was conflicting evidence and that a finding of no negligence was not simple, direct, and straightforward.  MHSD appealed from Justice Miller's decision.

The Court of Appeal undertook an extensive historical review of the law in Alberta with respect to summary judgment and dismissal. The Court of Appeal's analysis reiterated the value of summary judgment and summary trial as dispute resolution tools. Specifically, the Court of Appeal cited the expense and "plague" of delay associated with conventional trials - issues that continue to trend upwards.  The majority's decision cites Part 7 of the Alberta Rules of Court, titled "Resolving Claims Without Full Trial," as an explicit response to undue delays and the high costs associated with conventional trials.

The Court of Appeal's decision does not represent a significant shift in the law of summary judgment. However, the decision highlights that in the Court of Appeal's view:

  1. Summary judgment and dismissal provisions are invoked less frequently than they should be;
  2. Where appropriate, disposing of matters summarily prior to discovery is consistent with the reasoning in Weir-Jones; and
  3. The importance that summary judgment/dismissal applications can play as effective dispute resolution tools suggests that a more expansive evidentiary record, including the use of viva voce evidence, ought to be considered on a go forward basis.

While the dissent in this case, written by Justice O'Ferrall, echoed the majority's lament of the limited reliance on summary judgment and dismissal, it questioned whether this case was appropriate for summary dismissal. Justice O'Ferrall explained that there should be a distinction between a refusal to grant summary dismissal, which may be too premature of a "non-decision" to be appropriate for appellate review, and a finding either granting judgment or dismissal.  Justice O'Ferrall favoured an approach that granted deference to the discretion of the trial judge rather than one that required appellate courts to determine whether the available evidence provided the Court with sufficient confidence to dismiss the case.  Whether the lower Court had "sufficient confidence" was not, in Justice O'Ferrall's view, subject to appellate review.

The decision in Hannam v. MHSD, taken in its entirety, is a strong suggestion that, in the face of access to justice issues resulting in part from rising litigation costs and delays, the Court of Appeal is increasingly willing to uphold summary dispositions from the lower courts. Litigants and their counsel should evaluate whether the entirety or a portion of their claim or defense can be disposed of summarily and should make this determination early in the case.

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