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Floodgates open?

Editorial Obiter

The Court of Appeal has determined in Winmill v. Woodstock (Police Services Board) that the limitation period for an excessive force claim against the police started running at the end of the underlying criminal proceeding. Why is this significant? Lawyers say the ruling marks a change in when the limitation period starts for battery claims against the police, in certain circumstances.

This is a departure because often the limitation period for battery claims has begun when an alleged injury occurs, whereas with negligent investigation claims, it starts when criminal proceedings wrap up.

In this particular case, police from the Woodstock Police Service, responding to an altercation at Robert Winmill’s home in 2014, were alleged to have struck him.

Winmill was charged with assaulting one of the officers and resisting arrest. After being acquitted of the charges in early 2016, Winmill filed a notice of action against the police months later, signalling that he would be pursuing damages for negligent investigation and assault.

He also later filed a statement of claim related to “battery, abuse of authority as police officers, and negligence in the discharge of police duties,” said the ruling.

In a 2-1 decision, the Court of Appeal found that Winmill’s claims for negligent investigation, which was proceeding, and that for battery, were “inextricably intertwined” and that the limitation period for both claims started at the end of the criminal proceedings.

“[I]t strikes me as obvious that the verdict in the appellant’s criminal trial, especially on the assault charge, would be a crucial, bordering on determinative, factor in the appellant’s calculation of whether to proceed with a civil action grounded in a battery claim against the respondents,” said the ruling.

The ruling has a logical and straightforward sensibility. People may not choose to pursue civil claims against police until they know the results of a criminal matter. Whether the floodgates open for these types of claims due to a more generous interpretation of the limitation period in this particular case is unlikely because of more practical barriers. 

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