Multiple Plaintiffs, One Defendant

Photo: Aussiegall

Photo: Aussiegall

Scott McEachern is a Durham-area paralegal whose practice focuses on civil litigation. Scott leads SCOPE readers through the nitty-gritty details and relevant case law, of multiple plaintiff claims against a single defendant, within the monetary jurisdiction of small claims actions.


As a paralegal practitioner working primarily in Small Claims Court litigation, I am approached from time to time by two or more prospective clients who have separate claims of harm by the same party. Often, the would-be plaintiffs note damages that approach or exceed the Small Claims Court jurisdictional $25,000 maximum.

These potential plaintiffs prefer that their matters be heard expeditiously and with a paralegal budget, rather than a lawyer budget. They want to know how to pursue their respective matters in a way that minimizes any amounts that must be abandoned so that their claims fall within the Small Claims Court jurisdiction.

One consideration is whether to pursue the matters individually or jointly.

Applicable law permits each claimant with a cause of action to provide an independent right of action, by bringing a claim in the Small Claims Court at the $25,000 maximum. Yet, it appears to me, from extensive discussion with colleagues, that some paralegals (and perhaps some deputy judges) misunderstand the terms “cause of action” and “right of action.” They may misinterpret and misapply Rule 6.02 of the Rules of the Small Claims Court — the rule that forbids a plaintiff from splitting a cause of action for the purpose of bringing a claim into the jurisdiction of the Small Claims Court.

The key word is: plaintiff. It is true that Rule 6.02 forbids a single plaintiff from bringing multiple claims in the Small Claims Court, in particular where the total amount sought exceeds the $25,000 maximum. However, when more than one person, whether a natural person or an entity, has been harmed, each has his own cause of action. Each has an individual right to bring an action, on his own cause of action.

Rule 6.02 states that:

    A cause of action shall not be divided into two or more actions for the purpose of bringing it within the court’s jurisdiction.

Note that Rule 6.02 refers to “A cause of action.” A cause of action has been defined as “A factual situation the existence of which entitles one person to obtain from the court a remedy against another person” as per Lord Justice Diplock in Letang v. Cooper, [1964] All E.R. 929 (C.A.) at 934. A search for cases citing this definition in CanLII produces 4,735 results.

Now, with reference to Rule 6.02 and the definition of cause of action, tie the two together and pay special attention to the wording in Rule 6.02 which states: “A cause of action …” and the definition which states, ” … a factual situation the existence of which entitles one person to obtain from the court a remedy against another person.”

Accordingly, a cause of action is a legal concept that is possessed individually. A cause of action is not shared, although numerous persons can have their own causes of action, even their own causes of action arising from the same set of facts.

Where I think a lot of confusion arises is when two or more potential plaintiffs are harmed within the same contractual business transaction or tortious act, and each has experienced the same cause of action, from a label standpoint. I use the phrase “label standpoint” to indicate that causes of action have common names (i.e. breach of contract), yet your experience of a breach of contract and my experience of a breach of contract are not the same breach of contract, even if we are each parties to the same breached contract.

Confused? Try this! If you own a Corvette and I own a Corvette, is it necessarily the same Corvette? Of course not; we simply each independently own a Corvette. This example of a Corvette is straightforward and common sense, however, this “common sense” may be lost when referring to legal concepts such as causes of action. Keep in mind the above definition of cause of action: “… entitles one person …” — this one person cannot be you and me at the same time.

Further confusion sometimes comes about from the misperception that a cause of action derives from the perspective of a defendant. The proper perspective is that a cause of action belongs to a plaintiff. Paraphrasing Diplock, L.J., a cause of action is the fact or set of facts that give a person a legal right to seek redress or relief. Quite simply, what the defendant did, created only the fact or facts that give rise to the cause of action. The cause of action is borne from the wrongdoing, but it is not the wrongdoing itself, just as a child born from its mother is not the mother.

When viewed this way, a cause of action can be understood as an intangible possessed by a plaintiff from which there is a right to pursue legal remedy. In this way, cause of action and right of action are legally viewed as “conjoined twin siblings.”

Now that we appreciate how cause of action and right of action are created and are individually possessed, we can better discuss, debate, and prepare to argue in court that: an individual person or entity has a cause of action and a right of action; and the cause of action and right of action are independent of any cause of action and right of action possessed by other persons. These are so, even if we share the same cause of action in the sense that one’s own cause of action arises from the same factual situation or occurrence by the same potential defendant.

Again, you can own a Corvette and I can own a Corvette, which are not the same Corvette, even if we both bought our individual Corvettes from the same dealership at the same time from the same salesperson — there are still two distinct Corvettes, one owned by you and another owned by me.

Example Scenario 1 – Tort Law
    A vandal goes on a malicious spree, taking a baseball bat to 10 cars in a parking lot. Let’s assume all 10 were owned by friends and family at a celebration and $5,000 damage to each. The vandal is caught. The 10 car owners each seek a Small Claims Court action to recover their $5,000 for a total of $50,000 and all 10 choose to use the same paralegal so as to save costs (no sense getting 10 different paralegals up to speed).

In this situation, the law on point, stating that each victim of the same tort has an independent cause of action and each individual plaintiff may claim up to $25,000, can be found at Lock v. Waterloo (Regional Municipality), 2011 CarswellOnt 15974 at paragraphs 12 to 18 and Tope v. Stratford (City), [1994] O.J. No. 3097 at paragraphs 2 to 5.

Example Scenario 2 – Contract Law
    Take the above story, but imagine instead that the vandal was not caught. Also imagine that there was a valet service contractually paid for the safekeeping of each car (ignore any issues about waiver of liability, etc.).

In this slightly altered scenario, grounded in contract law, the result remains the same, as each victim still has his own independent cause of action. Even if one contract was entered into by multiple victims — such as husband and wife that had 50/50 shared ownership and thus a financial interest in one of the cars — each still has an independent cause of action, according to Kent v. Conquest Vacations, 2005 CanLII 2321, at paragraphs 3 to 9.

Of particular interest in Kent is paragraph 8, which states:

    8 While the damages of the individual parties arise out of a common transaction, they need not be asserted in a single action. Rule 5 of the Rules of the Superior Court, although not directly applicable to the Small Claims Court, is instructive. It provides that two or more plaintiffs, if represented by the same solicitor, “may” join as the plaintiffs in the same proceeding where their claims arise out of the same transaction. The joinder is voluntary.

Accordingly, it seems that multiple plaintiffs can use the same paralegal yet do so bringing separate actions so as to enable each to control the outcome of their own respective case such as settlement terms and other directives without fear of forced joinder.

Equally of interest in Lock are paragraphs 13 to 17 which state:

    13 The same point has been addressed under the Simplified Procedure provided in Rule 76 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, R.R.O. 1990, Reg. 194. There is a monetary limit for the mandatory application of that procedure and it has been held that multiple plaintiffs each claiming within the monetary limit can be properly joined in one claim: Baker v. Chrysler Canada Ltd. (1998), 38 O.R. (3d) 729 (Ont. Gen. Div.), leave to appeal denied 112 O.A.C. 277 (Ont. Div. Ct.). It has also been held that Rule 76 should be liberally interpreted to carry out its policy of containing the cost of litigating the smaller claims to which it applies: Lillie v. Bisson (1999), 46 O.R. (3d) 94 (Ont. C.A.) . In my view both of those principles are equally true of proceedings in the Small Claims Court.

    14 To hold otherwise would be to require that the case at bar be divided into two actions involving virtually identical allegations of fact and law. I see no useful purpose in requiring that multiplicity of proceedings, nor any proper basis to do so under the law of joinder or the law defining this court’s jurisdiction.

    15 Section 23(1)(a) of the Courts of Justice Act gives this court jurisdiction “in any action for the payment of money where the amount claimed does not exceed the prescribed amount…” “Action” is defined under s. 1(1) of the Act only as including proceedings, other than applications, commenced by a not-exhaustive list of originating documents. The list does not refer to the Small Claims Court and does not mention the Plaintiff’s Claim which, along with the Defendant’s Claim, is the originating document in this court.

    16 Section 1(1) of O.Reg. 626/00 sets the monetary jurisdiction of the Small Claims Court, stating that “The maximum amount of a claim in the Small Claims Court is $25,000.” That differs from s. 23(1) by referring to a “claim” in this court rather than an “action” in this court. As was found in Action Auto Leasing & Gallery Inc. v. Robillard (2011), 106 O.R. (3d) 281 (Ont. Div. Ct.), dealing with the minimum appealable amount, there is a material inconsistency between the language of the Act and the language of the corresponding regulation.

    17 The Courts of Justice Act and its regulations should be interpreted liberally and as a coherent package. In my view, properly interpreted, the effect of the applicable provisions is that plaintiffs suing together in one action in the Small Claims Court may properly each claim damages up to the maximum monetary jurisdiction of the court.

It seems that multiple plaintiffs can choose to join together in the same action, where each makes a claim up to the $25,000 maximum. The upside is that there is one, albeit very long, Plaintiff’s Claim to draft, and one $75 court fee to pay for issuance. The downside is that, in joinder, each plaintiff no longer has independence to control and direct the single action. Additionally, multiple plaintiffs in one action give rise to all the usual joint retainer concerns addressed by the Paralegal Rules of Conduct.

Another interesting case on this subject is that of KNP Headwear v. Levinson, 2005 CanLII 47090. KNP entered into two contracts with two corporate entities owned by Levinson. Within each contract, Levinson acted as a payment guarantor. When the entities defaulted, KNP brought two claims against Levinson, where the total amount sought in both claims would exceed the Small Claims Court monetary jurisdiction.

Levinson contended that KNP was splitting causes of action and should be required to join the claims and limit the sum to the Small Claims Court maximum. The court disagreed and deemed that, as Levinson apparently established two independent entities for the purpose of spreading personal liability risks, the personal liability arising out of the two individual contracts and two individual guarantees could be kept separate.

It seems that the court wisely ensured that Levinson couldn’t have his cake and eat it too.


Scott-M

Before becoming a paralegal, Scott McEachern was an insurance broker, licensed by the Registered Insurance Brokers of Ontario. Scott works primarily in the Small Claims Court, focusing on disputes involving contractors, and cases involving intentional torts.

He can be contacted at:

    32A Varcoe Rd.
    Courtice, ON
    L1E 2T7

    905-259-5460

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