Managing Litigation Risk in Public Construction Projects
Municipal, Land Use and Development – Art Linton
The Supreme Court of Canada recently clarified the law of injurious affection where no land is taken in its decision in Antrim Truck Centre Ltd. v. Ontario (Transportation), 2013 SCC 13. Unfortunately, the compound test set out by the Court has left many public sector professionals feeling uncomfortable about their ability to efficiently detect and assess potential claims without extensive legal assistance. Lawyers representing property owners in such cases often apply a simplified first pass test looking for construction that permanently, substantially, and disproportionately affects property values or causes personal or business damage. There is no reason that expropriating authorities can’t apply the same test to identify and mitigate the risk of unanticipated litigation expense.
The Expropriations Act (Ontario) requires an expropriating authority to compensate a landowner for reduction in market value as well as personal and business damages even where none of the owner’s land is taken. Before having an entitlement to compensation, claimants are required to prove any damage was caused by action taken under statutory authority, the damage would have given rise to liability in common law if not for the statutory authority, and the damage was caused by the construction, not the subsequent use of a public project. In most cases, it will be known whether the work was performed under statutory authority, and it will be reasonably clear whether a potential claim will arise from construction and not the use of a public work.
The legal test is complicated in practice because the Court requires that damage must be substantial and unreasonable. These terms are intentionally broad to permit consideration of the particular circumstances of each public project. The determination of what is substantial and unreasonable is subject to the moving target of Ontario Municipal Board and court decisions on various fact sets that come before them over time. Further, the legal test considers whether any damage to a property is, or is not, the kind of damage a property owner should be prepared to accept without compensation. An experienced expropriation lawyer is the best choice to conduct this legal analysis.
Public officials should diligently apply the simplified first pass test early in each project to identify potential claims and refer them for legal analysis. An experienced expropriation lawyer can then apply the full legal test set out by the Supreme Court to advise whether a potential claim is likely to materially affect the cost of a project. If serious potential claims are identified before construction begins, more time and options are available to mitigate liability and manage cost.
One illustration is a single business located on a short dead end side street off a main traffic artery. Vehicles travelling in either direction on the main road are able to reach the business using a left or right hand turn. Access to that business would clearly be affected by any permanent obstacle, such as a concrete safety barrier or a raised LRT service in the median of the main road. All customers who previously accessed that business by making a left hand turn off the main road would be prevented from doing so. An application of the simplified test would show likely permanent, substantial, and disproportionate affect from the construction, visited upon this single business. Early recognition of this problem might allow solutions like a left hand turn lane with permitted U-turns at the next intersection or opening a new access at the other end of the short dead end street.
The simplified first pass test is no replacement for a thorough strategic review of every project prior to construction. However, early detection of potential claims provides time to offer remedies that may not be available once a plan is approved and to make other reasonable efforts to reduce the impact of the project on affected property owners.
Art Linton is a lawyer with Sorbara, Schumacher, McCann LLP, one of the largest and most respected regional law firms in Ontario.
* * This article is intended only to inform and educate. It is not legal advice. Be sure to contact a lawyer to obtain legal advice on any specific matter.