Lower Threshold for Proving Income Loss in Cases Involving Childhood Sexual Abuse and Injury
The Ontario Court of Appeal in its October 25, 2019 decision in MacLeod v. Marshall, 2019 ONCA 842 has clarified that when a minor is injured and later, in adulthood, sues for compensation, they need not prove their past loss of income on the usual balance of probabilities standard. Instead, because at the time of the incidents causing injury the plaintiff was too young to have an established pattern of earnings, the plaintiff need only prove their income loss on the standard of whether there was a “real and substantial possibility” that they would have achieved the claimed earnings but for the incidents.
This clarification of the law has particular application in the historical childhood sexual abuse context where adult plaintiffs seek compensation for harms and losses resulting from assaults perpetrated on them when they were minors. As it turns out, this was precisely what was at issue in the MacLeod v. Marshall case, which involved abuse by a priest against the plaintiff when he was only a child.
Since all income losses that were claimed occurred after the abuse, all such losses were hypothetical in the sense that they were earnings the plaintiff claimed he would have had if he had not been abused. The Court of Appeal therefore held they needed only to be proven on the lower standard of proof, “realistic and substantial possibility”.
The Court of Appeal explained that, once wrongdoing has been established, income loss is to be quantified based on the following analysis. First, consideration needs to be given to what economic opportunities the plaintiff might have had if not abused. Second, consideration needs to be given to what further income the plaintiff could have earned, if any, than what he or she actually earned. Third, the percentage chance that the plaintiff would indeed have earned that additional income, taking into account positive and negative contingencies, must be determined.
This clarification of the law by an appellate court is important because, for too long, plaintiffs in historical sexual assault cases have been met with the objection by defendants that their income loss claims are far too speculative to be recognized as legitimate. The defence argument is usually that, because they were so young when the abuse occurred, it cannot possibly be known what their career paths would have entailed without the abuse. Therefore, they should receive nothing for loss of income, or only a very modest amount to reflect a loss of opportunity or competitive advantage.
The Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision provides a principled basis on which to resist such arguments, but also guidance about the kind of evidence a plaintiff with a claim based on childhood incidents must put forward to succeed with respect to past loss of income. The fact the Court of Appeal in MacLeod v. Marshall declined to interfere with a jury award for combined past and future income loss of almost $1.6 million, gives further credence to the argument that income loss claims in the historical sexual abuse context are ones that deserve to be taken seriously. Defendants and insurers should expect to see many more such claims being advanced. Going forward, Plaintiffs will be less willing to compromise on these claims in the course of settlement negotiations.