In Ross v. Bacchus, the Ontario Court of Appeal recently set aside an order of the trial judge awarding a higher level of costs because of the defendant’s conduct at the mediation. This decision emphasizes that, absent proof of bad faith, courts will be reluctant, at least in Ontario, to impose costs awards relating to the conduct of parties during settlement discussions.

The decision also opens up interesting questions about how participation in mediation and settlement discussion may be proven and how a standing offer to settle affects the court’s decision about the reasonableness of a party’s conduct at mediation.

Background

In a personal injury case arising from a traffic accident, the jury awarded the plaintiff $248,000 and the judge ordered costs in favour of the plaintiff in the amount of $217,000. That costs award included $60,000 because the trial judge found that the defendant’s insurer had failed to attempt to settle the claim as expeditiously as possible, and had refused to participate in the mediation of the claim, as required by sections 258.5 and 258.6 of the Ontario Insurance Act. Those sections provide that a trial judge can take the insurer’s failure to perform those obligations into consideration when awarding costs.

The action was started in September 2010. The defendant’s insurer offered to settle for $40,000 in August 2011 and withdrew the offer in March 2012. About three weeks before the trial in November 2013, the plaintiff offered to settle for $94,065 plus prejudgment interest and costs and, for the first time, offered to participate in mediation. The defendant then offered to settle for $30,000 plus interest and costs and to participate in a half-day mediation, but counsel for the defendant stated that the insurers were “not interested” in settling the case. The plaintiff responded with an offer to settle for $79,065 plus prejudgment interest and costs.

A half-day mediation occurred four days before trial. After the six day trial and the jury’s award of $248,000, the trial judge ordered costs in favour of the plaintiff on a partial indemnity basis up to the plaintiff’s pre-trial offer and substantial indemnity costs after that offer. The trial judge awarded an additional $60,000 in costs in favour of the plaintiff by reason of the failure of the defendant’s insurer to comply with sections 258.5(5) and 258.6(2) of the Ontario Insurance Act.

Four points emerge from the Court of Appeal’s decision over-turning the judgment of the trial judge:

  1. The statement by the defendant’s counsel before the mediation that the defendant’s insurer was “not interested in settlement” was not a sufficient basis to conclude that the insurer would not make a bona fide effort to settle at the mediation. Effectively, the Court of Appeal said that posturing of that sort is part of the litigation and settlement process:

“An insurer’s statement on the eve of trial that it is not prepared to settle a claim cannot be equated with an insurer’s failure to “attempt to settle the claim as expeditiously as possible.” Nor can an insurer who actually participates in a mediation be declared to have failed to participate simply because the insurer indicated prior to the mediation that it was not prepared to settle the claim. A clear statement of the insurer’s position going into the mediation, even a strong statement, does not preclude meaningful participation in a mediation….. The trial judge assumed that because the insurer’s counsel advised that his client was “not interested” in settling the case, the insurer’s subsequent participation in the mediation was “a sham.” The assumption was unwarranted. A firm position strongly put going into mediation does not preclude meaningful participation in the mediation.”

  1. The plaintiff did not tender any evidence that the defendant had not participated meaningfully in the mediation. In writing for the court, Justice Doherty ducked the question as to whether evidence about the conduct of the mediation would have been admissible. He said that this question “raises an interesting legal issue. I need not get into that issue.” Rather, the court held that the plaintiff’s position failed because there was no evidence on the issue:

“If the respondent wanted costs for the insurer’s failure to participate in the mediation, it was incumbent on the respondent to lead evidence establishing the failure to participate in the mediation. Had the respondent attempted to do so, the question of the impact of the settlement privilege on the admissibility of evidence relevant to the insurer’s participation in the mediation may have come front and centre. On this record, the trial judge’s finding that the insurer did not participate in the mediation fails, not because the settlement privilege cloaks the mediation in confidentiality, but because the factual finding of the trial judge has no support in the evidence.”

  1. The fact that the defendant’s insurer had made offers to settle which was of considerable importance to the Court of Appeal. It referred to this fact several times in its judgment:

“There is no evidence that the appellant’s insurer failed to attempt to settle this claim as expeditiously as possible. The appellant made an “all-in” offer to settle for $40,000 in August 2011, less than one year after the action was commenced……. In any event, the insurer had made a settlement offer which was not revoked before trial…..

  1. The Court of Appeal held that the trial judge’s finding about the insurer’s motivation in rejecting the plaintiff’s offer and proceeding to trial were unsupported and irrelevant:

“…the trial judge was also influenced by what he saw as the insurer’s attempt to intimidate the respondent by refusing to make a counteroffer after the respondent’s last offer. The trial judge described the insurer as risking a trial for the sake of $50,000, the difference between the two offers…..Insurers, like any other defendant, are entitled to take cases to trial. When an insurer rejects a plaintiff’s offer and proceeds to trial, the insurer risks both a higher damage award at trial and the imposition of substantial indemnity costs after the date of the rejected offer. Both risks came to pass in this case. The insurer paid a significant financial penalty for its decision to proceed to trial. The costs provisions in ss. 258.5 and 258.6 do not address those risks, but instead address the failure to meet the specific obligations identified in those provisions. The trial judge’s assumptions about the insurer’s motivation for rejecting the respondent’s offer and proceeding to trial had no relevance to the determination of whether augmented costs should be awarded under the Insurance Act provisions.”

Discussion

A number of lessons can be learned from this decision.

The first lesson is that a standing offer to settle can be powerful evidence of a bona fide intention to settle. So parties to litigation are well advised to make the best offer they can, if for no other reason than to avoid an order of costs based upon an unreasonable refusal to discuss settlement.

The second lesson is that it requires evidence to establish that a party has failed or refused to participate in mediation. This lesson may ultimately require a court to decide whether the conduct of a party at the mediation is admissible in evidence. It seems unlikely that such evidence will be admissible. Section 9 of the Ontario Commercial Mediation Act, 2010 states that mediations are confidential, unless the parties otherwise agree. The recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Bombardier v Union Carbide emphasized the confidential nature of mediation, although it did find that, if a settlement is alleged to have been made during mediation, that fact can normally be proven.

The Bombardier v. Union Carbide case opens up the question of whether evidence of a total failure to mediate would be admissible. Say, the defendant attends the mediation with its insurer, and the insurer announces to the mediator: “We’re here but we decline to make or respond to any offer by the plaintiff or to engage in settlement discussions.” Would those facts be admission in evidence? There seems to be a powerful argument that they would be, and that the settlement privilege should not apply to a refusal to participate in settlement discussions. The mere fact that this conduct occurred in the mediation room rather than before the parties came to that room does not logically seem to make that conduct part of the mediation and preclude it from being proven. Rather, it would appear to be conduct which “preclude[s] meaningful participation in a mediation” as referred to by the Court of Appeal.

However, it seems unlikely that evidence about the conduct of a mediation itself, if a real mediation does commence, will be admissible in evidence. Accordingly, if a party does actually participate in mediation, it will be difficult to prove that it failed to do so in a bona fide manner, especially if it has made an offer to settle which was open until trial.

While this decision arose in the context of sections 285.5 and 285.6 of the Ontario Insurance Act, these issues could arise in any litigation or arbitration in which a party’s failure to make reasonable efforts to settle is an issue and, as a result, a higher amount of costs is sought by the other party.

See Heintzman and Goldsmith on Canadian Building Contracts (5th ed.), chapter 11, part 13(d).

Ross v. Bacchus, 2015 ONCA 347

Alternate Dispute Resolution – mediation – offer to settle – costs- insurance

Thomas G. Heintzman O.C., Q.C., FCIArb                                                   November 8, 2015

www.heintzmanadr.com

www.constructionlawcanada.com