Alberta’s highest court recently adopted the Supreme Court of Canada’s reasoning in Hryniak v. Maldin, 2014 SCC 7, making it easier for applicants to obtain summary judgment on unmeritorious claims. In Windsor v. Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., 2014 ABCA 108, the Alberta Court of Appeal allowed a summary judgment motion previously denied by the case management judge, and in doing so, modernised the application of summary judgment in Alberta.
Since the early 1900s, Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. (CPR) operated a locomotive repair facility known as the “Ogden Shops.” At the time the Ogden Shops were constructed they were located outside the Calgary city limits in a heavily industrialized zone. Because of the presence of the Ogden Shops, an adjacent residential community eventually came into existence.
From the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, the Ogden Shops used a degreasing solvent composed mainly of trichloroethylene (TCE). In 1999, CPR discovered that TCE had leaked into the groundwater that flowed underneath the Ogden Shops and had migrated into the groundwater under portions of the Ogden residential community. Groundwater testing revealed varying levels of TCE underneath the properties. Where the TCE levels exceeded Health Canada thresholds, CPR installed depressurization systems to reduce the TCE concentrations to acceptable levels.
David and Agnes Windsor brought an action against CPR for diminution in property values and losses of rental income, allegedly caused by the presence of TCE in the groundwater flowing underneath their home. This action was ultimately certified as a class proceeding on behalf of all similarly situated homeowners.
Case Management Judge Decision
CPR applied to summarily dismiss certain portions of the class action; namely, the strict liability claim, the claim in nuisance by class members with depressurization systems in place, and the claim in nuisance by class members without depressurization systems.
However, the case management judge elected to only grant summary dismissal with respect to the claim in nuisance by class members without depressurization systems. On the other two points, he determined that there were genuine issues for trial. CPR appealed.
After the case management judge rendered his decision, but before the appeal was heard, the Supreme Court of Canada issued its ruling in Hryniak. Hryniak recognized that a full trial is not always the best way to resolve disputes. Rather, when summary judgment (1) allows the judge to make the necessary findings of fact, (2) allows the judge to apply the law to the facts, and (3) is a proportionate, more expeditious, and less expensive means to achieve a just result, no trial is required.
In Windsor, the Alberta Court of Appeal embraced this less restrictive test and affirmed that the principles outlined in Hryniak are also applicable in Alberta. Based on this reasoning, the Court summarily dismissed the strict liability claim and the claim in nuisance by class members without depressurization systems, overruling the decision of the case management judge. However, the nuisance claim by class members with depressurization systems still did not meet the test for summary dismissal, and was allowed to proceed to trial.
A Court in Alberta weighing summary judgment can now consider the merit of the claim as a whole, rather than be limited to simply determining the high bar of whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Consequently, a judge may make necessary findings of fact where it is fair and just to both parties on the existing record. Previously, any disputed fact could result in a genuine issue for trial. Disputes as to facts could even be achieved by well-crafted pleadings.
Since a judge will now consider whether there is any issue of merit that genuinely requires a trial, unsupported allegations of fact may no longer require a trial in order to achieve a just result. Practically, this decision may result in faster and cost effective resolution of debt and guarantee enforcement, contractual disputes involving allegations of inducement by misrepresentation, wrongful dismissal matters, and a host of other disputes.