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Torts - Spoliation

. Trillium Power Wind Corporation v. Ontario

In Trillium Power Wind Corporation v. Ontario (Ont CA, 2023) the Court of Appeal considers (and applies) the evidentiary doctrine of 'spoliation', and here discusses it's consideration of advancement as a new tort:
(a) Governing principles

[20] Spoliation arises out of the destruction of potentially relevant evidence. It "occurs where a party has intentionally destroyed evidence relevant to ongoing or contemplated litigation in circumstances where a reasonable inference can be drawn that the evidence was destroyed to affect the litigation”: McDougall v. Black & Decker Canada Inc., 2008 ABCA 353, 440 A.R. 253, at para. 18.

[21] The motion judge correctly stated that “while spoliation as a self-standing cause of action is still open to question, Ontario courts have recognized spoliation as an evidentiary rule where there has been destruction of evidence by a party who reasonably anticipated litigation in which that evidence would play a part” and that this rule of evidence gives rise to a rebuttable presumption that the evidence destroyed would have been unfavourable to the party who destroyed it. He also rightly determined that he would not dismiss the spoliation claim at that stage on the basis that the cause of action is somewhat novel. While this court has not yet definitively resolved whether spoliation is a cause of action, it has permitted it to proceed to trial as a novel cause of action: Spasic Estate v. Imperial Tobacco Ltd. (2000), 2000 CanLII 17170 (ON CA), 49 O.R. (3d) 699 (C.A.), at paras. 12 and 22, leave to appeal refused, [2000] S.C.C.A. No. 547. It is unnecessary for the purposes of this appeal to resolve the issue.

[22] While a novel standalone cause of action, spoliation is not a novel issue. It arises out of a party’s breach of the well-established obligation to preserve and produce relevant documents in civil proceedings. The court’s intervention is required because spoliation undermines a fair trial process and interferes with the quest for the truth in judicial proceedings: Casbohm v. Winacott Spring Western Star Trucks, 2021 SKCA 21, at para. 36. As such, it amounts to an abuse of process.

[23] In St. Louis v. Canada (1896), 1896 CanLII 65 (SCC), 25 S.C.R. 649, at pp. 652-653, the Supreme Court established that the destruction of evidence carries a rebuttable presumption that “the evidence destroyed would have been unfavourable to the party who destroyed it”. The Court of Appeal of Alberta described the Supreme Court’s conclusion from St. Louis as follows, in McDougall, at para. 19:
Spoliation in law does not occur merely because evidence has been destroyed. Rather, it occurs where a party has intentionally destroyed evidence relevant to ongoing or contemplated litigation in circumstances where a reasonable inference can be drawn that the evidence was destroyed to affect the litigation. Once this is demonstrated, a presumption arises that the evidence would have been unfavourable to the party destroying it. This presumption is rebuttable by other evidence through which the alleged spoliator proves that his actions, although intentional, were not aimed at affecting the litigation, or through which the party either proves his case or repels the case against him.
[24] The court’s jurisdiction to grant remedies in response to spoliation springs from rules of civil procedure, its inherent power to control an abuse of its process, and its inherent discretion with respect to costs: McDougall, at para. 22. Remedies granted have mostly included but are not limited to the application of the adverse presumption referenced above in St. Louis, and costs: McDougall, at para. 29. Whether damages, including punitive damages, may be awarded if spoliation is treated as a standalone cause of action is an issue for another day and need not be resolved in this appeal: Armstrong v. Moore, 2020 ONCA 49, 15 R.P.R. (6th) 200, at para. 37.

(b) Principles applied

[25] Respectfully, the motion judge erred in dismissing the claim by holding that the evidentiary basis for the appellant’s claim was absent and by concluding that the unfavourable presumption against Ontario because of its destruction of documents was rebutted by the implementation of a government policy that the motion judge acknowledged was improper.

[26] First, there was an ample evidentiary basis to support spoliation by Ontario.

[27] Based on the motion judge’s own findings, there can be no question that the destruction in issue was deliberate and in accordance with an improper government policy. The motion judge found, based on an investigative report by the Information and Privacy Commission of Ontario, that the improper destruction of hand-held devices, emails and documents by the Premier’s Office under former Premier Dalton McGuinty was a notorious violation of record-keeping obligations and raised serious issues of political accountability.

[28] Moreover, there is no dispute that the impugned destruction occurred subsequent to the commencement of the appellant’s claim and concerned likely relevant documents in the possession of individuals who, as the motion judge found, were intimately involved in the relevant events and who were aware of the appellant’s claim. These individuals included Messrs. Mullin, Chris Morley, former Chief of Staff, and Jamison Steeve, among others, who were so engaged in the events giving rise to the wind farm moratorium and the appellant’s claim that they provided affidavits in support of Ontario’s summary judgment motion.

[29] The motion judge also discussed how the destruction of this evidence may have affected the litigation of this case, at para. 21:
The parties have engaged in documentary exchange, examinations for discovery, etc. During this time, it has become apparent that, among other things, the Ontario government is unable to locate and produce any emails from the email servers of any former [Office of the Premier] personnel. This lack of documentation is significant as [Office of the Premier] personnel were centrally involved in considering the offshore wind decisions in issue here, including both the decision to put a stop to offshore projects and the decision to announce that policy change on February 11, 2011.
[30] It is no answer to the appellant’s allegation of spoliation that Ontario’s right hand did not know what the left hand was doing. Ontario is a party to these proceedings and knew about the appellant’s claim prior to its destruction of documents, emails and devices. As a party to these proceedings, Ontario was required to preserve any potentially relevant documents in order to fulfill its disclosure obligations. Such documents included any potentially relevant emails, including those in the possession of departing employees who Ontario knew had relevant evidence – so relevant that Ontario put them forward as its own affiants in support of its motion for summary judgment. That these documents were potentially relevant to the issues in these proceedings is obvious from the gaps in the email exchanges that have been produced. Ontario’s deliberate destruction of evidence is clear.

[31] Importantly, whether Ontario’s intention was to destroy relevant evidence for use in simply this litigation or in all litigation is a distinction without a difference. As the motion judge referenced, it is a matter of public record that the subsequent inquiry into Ontario’s destruction policy in 2013 and related criminal proceedings against Mr. Morley’s successor as Chief of Staff demonstrated that the intention of the spoliators was to destroy any incriminating documents, at paras. 23-25:
It is a matter of public record that during the McGuinty period the practice within the [Office of the Premier] was for the email accounts of departed personnel to be “decommissioned” – i.e. deleted in their entirety. Furthermore, there is evidence that the handheld devices used by the [Office of the Premier] personnel at the time were, after their departures from the [Office of the Premier], either reset or, in the case of former Chief of Staff Morley, physically destroyed.

Evidence of this practice was canvassed before the Legislative Committee investigating the deletion of documents in the context of the McGuinty government’s gas plant cancellation: Standing Committee on Justice Policy, Legislative Assembly of Ontario, 2nd Sess., 40th Parl., June 18, 2013. It was likewise the subject of an investigative report by the Information and Privacy Commission of Ontario, which concluded that the email destruction practice was a violation of the Archives and Recordkeeping Act, 2006, SO 2006, c. 34 and raised serious issues of political accountability: IPC, Deleting Accountability: Records Management Practices of Political Staff, June 5, 2013, at 32.Most notably, the device destruction and email deletion policy was also thoroughly canvassed during the course of the criminal trial of Chris Morley’s successor as chief of staff, David Livingston. It was there described by the court in rather scathing terms as a “plan to eliminate sensitive and confidential work-related data…[which] amounted to a ‘scorched earth’ strategy, where information that could be potentially useful to adversaries, both within and outside of the Liberal Party, would be destroyed”: R. v. Livingston, 2018 ONCJ 25, at para 176. [Emphasis added.]
[32] The motion judge failed to look at the question of spoliation in the broader context of Ontario’s obligations to preserve and produce relevant documents. He therefore applied a very narrow construction to the meaning and effect of Ontario’s intentional destruction of evidence that Ontario knew it had to preserve and produce. Allowing Ontario to by-pass its clear documentary obligations in this way would amount to an abuse of process. Applying the correct analytical lens leads to the conclusion that spoliation occurred: there was a deliberate destruction of potentially relevant evidence from which the reasonable inference can be drawn that the destruction was done to affect litigation, including the present litigation.

[33] As a result, the motion judge’s dismissal of the spoliation claim must be set aside.

[34] The appellant submits that in the event that the motion judge’s dismissal of its spoliation claim is set aside, this court should remit the case to trial for a determination of the appropriate quantum of damages arising from the spoliation.

[35] I would not do so. The appellant’s spoliation claim is inextricably tied up with its misfeasance claim. The setting aside of the motion judge’s dismissal of the spoliation claim does not affect the dismissal of its claim for misfeasance in public office, including any claim for damages. Even if an adverse inference were drawn against Ontario that the destroyed evidence would have been unhelpful to its position in this litigation, the appellant could not have compelled Ontario to reverse its moratorium or fund its wind farm project and therefore suffered no damages, even if Ontario’s timing of the announcement of its moratorium had targeted the timing of the appellant’s financing. Moreover, the timing of the announcement even proved beneficial in that the appellant did not incur the cost of funding the cancelled project. As the appellant would not be able to demonstrate that it suffered any damages as a result of Ontario’s spoliation, there is no purpose in remitting it to the Superior Court for a trial on damages.

[36] This does not mean, however, that the appellant is left without any remedy flowing from Ontario’s deliberate spoliation. In my opinion, the circumstances of Ontario’s spoliation amount to an abuse of process: McDougall, at paras. 22, 29. As such, the appropriate remedy is to deprive Ontario of its costs below and grant the appellant its costs of the appeal.


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Last modified: 14-06-23
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