No private relationship between regulator and individual members of public
The federal government does not owe a duty of care to a woman who was injured by an accidental explosion, despite the government’s power to license and regulate operations of explosives, the British Columbia Court of Appeal has ruled.
In Canada (Attorney General) v. Frazier, Sabrina Frazier was injured by an explosion that occurred in a nearby building undergoing renovations. She filed a claim against the Minister of Natural Resources, alleging that the minister was responsible for regulating the licensing and operation of explosives and that the minister knew or ought to have known that the explosives in the building were a risk to public safety and could cause serious injury and loss. She asserted that the minister owed her a private law duty of care.
The minister applied to strike Frazier’s action on the ground that it disclosed no reasonable claim. Courts are empowered to strike claims that have no reasonable chance of success, allowing legal disputes to be resolved promptly rather than at a full trial. The chambers judge refused to exercise this power to strike upon finding that Frazier’s allegation of a duty of care had at least a reasonable prospect of success. The minister challenged the judge’s decision and elevated it to the BC Court of Appeal.
Duty of care
The appeal court emphasized that liability in negligence is predicated on the defendant’s duty to take reasonable care to guard the interests of the plaintiff. The court further said that in establishing a prima facie duty of care, a reasonable foreseeability of harm and a sufficiently proximate relationship between the parties must be proved.
Proximity of relationship
The appeal court explained that, in analyzing proximity of relationship between the parties, the focus is on whether a relationship is sufficiently close and direct that the defendant is obligated to have regard for the plaintiff’s legitimate interests. The chambers judge found a proximate relationship existed between the parties because of the minister’s alleged knowledge of contraventions of the Explosives Act and Regulation that placed Frazier at risk of harm. Under the law, the minister has authority to issue licenses, permits and certificates, and conduct inspections to promote the public good.
The appeal court adopted the view that a statutory scheme aimed at promoting the public good does not generally provide sufficient basis to create proximity with individuals who are affected by the scheme. The court further said that Parliament did not intend to create a private relationship of proximity between the regulator and individual members of the public. The court acknowledged that the minister owes an administrative law duty of fairness to regulated parties in terms of licensing and inspection. However, within the context of such a legislative scheme, the imposition of a private relationship of proximity between the minister and members of the public potentially at risk of harm would create a conflict between the Minister’s private and public duties.
No direct interactions
In addition, the court observed that Frazier did not allege that she had any direct interactions with the minster as a regulator of explosives operation and the minister did not make representations to Frazier that she relied upon. According to the court, other than a bare statement that the regulator “knew or ought to have known” of contraventions of the legislation, Frazier’s pleading was devoid of any material facts to establish a proximate relationship.
The appeal court concluded that no special relationship of proximity arose from Frazier’s bare plea that the minister knew or ought to have known of contraventions of the legislation, resulting in foreseeable risk of harm. Due to the absence of a proximate relationship, the court resolved to strike Frazier’s claim of negligence against the federal government.