Sudbury·In Depth

Sudbury civil lawsuits force changes to keep city budget down

The City of Greater Sudbury is facing so many civil lawsuits it's had to change how it handles cases in order to keep legal bills from eating too much of the budget.

10 lawsuits filed against city in recent months total $10M

The Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General says there were 1,229 civil suits filed in Sudbury last year. (Erik White/CBC)

The City of Greater Sudbury is facing so many civil lawsuits it's had to make changes to keep legal bills down.

The city doesn't track civil lawsuits, but the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General says there were 1,229 civil suits filed in Sudbury last year, 1,111 in 2013-2014, and 1,399 in 2010-2011.

There have been so many suits, executive director of administrative services Caroline Hallsworth says, that the city gave more work to internal lawyers, to keep the legal bills from climbing too high.

From 2008 to 2010, the cost of hiring outside counsel was $789,928, but after the changes it is now budgeted to be $450,000 for this coming year.

"And so now we do about 80 per cent of our own legal work in house, with our own legal department," said Hallsworth, adding that most of the outside lawyers handle the litigation cases, while the four internal lawyers are more focused on corporate and municipal law.

There were ten civil suits filed against the city in the past few months, seeking a total of more than $10 million. Many of them were related to injuries from slipping on a sidewalk or a bumpy ride on a city bus. The city is defending most of them.

Here are some examples:

  • A Handi-Transit rider says he fell over in his wheelchair when the bus took a sharp turn. He is suing the city, the bus driver and the contracted bus company for $1 million.
  • A man says he was injured when he accidently stepped into an unmarked utility box in Lively. He is suing the city, Greater Sudbury Utilities, as well as several hydro and communications firms for $250,000.
  • A woman slipped on what she called uneven sidewalk in front of the Garson post office. She is suing the city, Canada Post and Vale (which owns the land the post office is on) for $90,000.
  • A man fell and was injured after he tripped on a raised electrical panel on Durham Street. He is suing the city and city-owned utility companies for $500,000.
  • A pioneer Manor resident fell and broke his hip while trying to get out of bed. He is suing the city and its nursing home for $200,000.
  • Two men are suing the city and its bus driver for $1 million each, after they say they were injured when a transit bus went over a bump in Azilda in April 2014.

Are Canadians more litigious?

Provincially, the numbers suggest there are actually fewer civil actions being filed. There were 81,946 civil lawsuits launched in Ontario in 2010 and in 2014-2015 that fell to 74,395.

However, Toronto lawyer and Osgoode Hall law professor John Mascarin said anecdotally many legal observers believe Canadians are getting more litigious.

"It's almost become somewhat of a catchphrase, that if something goes wrong, then someone needs to be sued," said Mascarin.

Mascarin said cities, hospitals, universities and other government organizations are obvious targets, because they can actually pay.

"(The city) is thought of by the public, whether it's true or not, as a defendant with deep pockets."

Mascarin said there are several reasons why Canadians may look to settle their problems in court. He said more law firms are working on a contingency basis, meaning they only get paid if the client wins a cash settlement. 

He also pointed some blame at the big dollar figures that came from high profile rulings against municipalities, such as two large lawsuits from people injured while tobogganing, as well as a recent court ruling that awarded an Ontario farmer more than $100,000 for damages he claimed were caused by the local government's use of road salt.

"So, if the courts continue to give those types of judgements, people will be more prone to commence a litigation claim," Mascarin said.

With files from The Canadian Press