When we stub a toe, we blame the table.
This might seem like particularly unintelligent behaviour for a creature as intelligent as man, but it’s just a side effect of how evolution has hardwired us to identify patterns — an important ability that enables us both to distinguish a loved one’s face from that of a stranger and to figure out how to separate valuable metal from worthless rock.
Our inherent need to find the pattern, though, has also left us with the unfortunate tendency — sometimes misguided — to assign blame when something bad happens to us. This tendency is a windfall for personal injury lawyers, who profit more than anyone from this unfortunate side-effect of our pattern recognition software.
In Ontario, this fact combined with some ridiculously loose interpretations of a provision in the province’s Negligence Act and another unfortunate human tendency — greed — are costing taxpayers a fortune.
On Dec. 18 at NorthernLife.ca and on Dec. 19 in the newspaper, we brought you a story about the massive jump in the city’s insurance costs. I think the importance of the piece — and its far-reaching impact — may have been lost in the hustle and bustle of Christmas.
The insurance numbers are downright frightening. Rates are up 29.1 per cent in emergency services, 40 per cent in the police budget, more than 48 per cent in Ontario Works and nearly 55 per cent — no, that’s not a typo — in building services. And that’s just a sample of the hikes.
In case you think the Nickel City is an anomaly, it isn’t. We checked with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO). There are similar percentage jumps in cities and towns across the province.
You would think someone would have made more of a stink. When gas prices slide up or down by a few pennies, it’s either time to gas up or nod knowingly about the Big Oil conspiracy. So, why have we not heard more about this?
These insurance hikes are sucking millions, perhaps billions, of public dollars — not to mention court time and associated costs to municipalities for paying staff to deal with these suits.
Since 2007, municipal insurance costs have outpaced the Canadian inflation rate by more than 30 per cent. That’s according to the numbers given to us by AMO, a spokesperson for which also said the association has been lobbying for years to change the Negligence Act. Apparently, they’ve been doing it rather quietly.
How does this relate to humans and our overly sensitive blame apparatus? AMO says personal injury lawsuits against municipalities are the prime reason rates are going through the roof. Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying municipalities are never at fault. They can be negligent and sometimes deserve to be sued, I’m sure. Like lawyers, not all personal injury suits are bad.
But municipalities also have deep pockets, making them especially attractive if you’re filing suit.
And then, there’s the so-called one-per-cent rule.
If a single lawsuit has several defendants, in Ontario the defendant with the deepest pockets can be held liable for the entire damage award, even if their share of the responsibility is as little as one per cent.
Check out reporter Darren MacDonald’s story from last month. He cites two Ontario cases where that’s exactly what happened and the details will make you want to pull your hair out.
In many cases, it’s cheaper for municipalities just to settle.
Municipalities and media have to make this issue a priority and push the province to tear up the one-per-cent rule.
Put a cap on damage awards for certain types of lawsuit; limit municipal liability for certain services provided — do something to protect our money.
If we do nothing, who do we have to blame?
Mark Gentili is the managing editor of Northern Life.