A recent decision out of the Ontario Court of Appeal, Huma v. Mississauga Hospital[1] is a cautionary tale for parties who chose to represent themselves. In this particular case, the Court of Appeal upheld a ruling of the Ontario Superior Court which enforced a settlement entered into by self-represented plaintiffs and represented defendants, even as the self-represented plaintiffs attempted to walk away from the terms of the deal they had negotiated.

After almost two years from the date of issuing the Statement of Claim in this medical malpractice case, counsel for the defendant doctors and one of the self-represented plaintiffs discussed the option of dismissing the action on a without cost basis. Soon after, that same self-represented plaintiff sent an email to the lawyers for the defendants confirming that the plaintiffs would be dismissing the claim on a without cost basis and asked for confirmation of acceptance from the defendants, as well, a copy of the form needed to file the dismissal with the court. The email was signed off by the three plaintiffs (all of whom were self-represented). Counsel for the defendants agreed to the dismissal in exchange for a release. The release drafted by the defendant’s lawyers included a clause waiving independent legal advice as well  as a confidentiality clause.

Ultimately the plaintiffs refused to proceed with the settlement and retained legal counsel to proceed with the Action. On a motion under rule 49.09 of the Rules of Civil Procedure brought by the defendants to enforce the settlement, Justice Lorne Sossin of the Ontario Superior Court enforced the settlement. The plaintiffs appealed the decision to the Ontario Court of Appeal.

On Appeal, Justice Paul Rouleau, writing for a unanimous panel which included Justices Bradley Miller and Benjamin Zarnett, held that in considering the words used in the plaintiffs’ email, the requisite intention to create a binding settlement was present when viewed objectively. Further, the Court found that a settlement implies an obligation to furnish a release, one that does not extend beyond the terms to which the parties have agreed upon. The Court of Appeal acknowledged that the releases proffered by the lawyers were overly broad. The proposed releases contained terms that were beyond what was strictly necessary to enforce the intentions of the binding settlement agreement. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal clarified that the proffering of overly broad releases does not negate the existence of a settlement, where there is no evidence that the settlement agreement was conditional on the defendants obtaining a release with those specific provisions.

The Court of Appeal also saw no issue with motion judge’s exercise of discretion and fact-finding. The motion judge recognized his discretion to refuse to enforce a settlement that was unconscionable, but refused to exercise that discretion on evidence that the settlement was not unconscionable.

This Court of Appeal decision confirms that the existence of a binding settlement agreement is determined by an objective reading of the parties’ conduct and surrounding correspondence without the need to actually execute an agreement or release that formalizes same. While the Court recognized that the plaintiffs were self-represented, they were found to be sophisticated people and without any evidence of having been pressured into agreeing to settle, the Court upheld the motion judge’s discretion to enforce the settlement. Parties who choose to represent themselves ought to know that  they will still be held to their word, notwithstanding their lack of legal counsel.

Aryeh Samuel is the co-author of this blog and an associate at the firm. Yalda Aziz is co-author and student at the firm. If you have a question about this decision or a similar file, please contact Aryeh at 416-777-7387 or Yalda at 416-777-2811 ex 5288.

[1] 2020 ONCA 644