To Be Negligent Or Not To Be Negligent? That Is The Question.

Ryan Dobson with his mother Cynthia and his maternal grandmother

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This wonderfully warm photo was taken by Diane Doiron of the National Post back in 1999. https://www.fact.on.ca/newpaper/np99070m.htm In it we see caregiving mother Cynthia Dobson with her laughing young son Ryan and the maternal grandmother, also interviewed by the National Post.

Cynthia & Ryan were involved in a tort case, along with Cynthia’s father who acted as guardian ad litem for Ryan. Cynthia was situated in an adverse relation to her young son in this case, which you can access at Dobson (Litigation Guardian of) v. Dobson, 1999 CanLII 698 (SCC), [1999] 2 SCR 753, <http://canlii.ca/t/1fqkz>, retrieved on 2019-11-27.

Dobson v Dobson (Litigation guardian of) was heard in the Supreme Court of Canada. In this, my very 1st Blog Post, I provide a Case Brief and Commentary. So, first I provide a basic case brief of Dobson. And then present my commentary which offers a few thoughts on what was going on in this case from the legal perspective of a caregiving mother.

The Dobson case involved a car accident that happened in very bad weather. A pregnant woman, Cynthia Dobson, was driving the car. The accident she was in caused serious physical injury to her fetus and the fetus was subsequently delivered by c-section the day of the accident.

The Maternal grandfather of Ryan, acting as litigation guardian sough to assert that his daughter Cynthia owed a duty of care to her son, Ryan. This raised some thorny legal issues in the area of motherhood. I will speak to that issue after I relay how the court examined this situation.

The primary legal issue identified by the court in this case was whether or not Cynthia Dobson (and pregnant women more generally) can be found liable for injuries caused to a fetus as a result of their own actions.

The Supreme Court of Canada decided that even though the relationship between a women and a fetus met part of the legal test in a duty of care analysis (reasonable foreseeability and proximity for legal negligence) for public policy reasons the court would not impose a duty of care on Cynthia Dobson.

Thus a fetus, when born, could not sue their own mother. The reason the matter was decided this way, was that the court found that imposing liability on a woman when pregnant threatened her bodily integrity, her privacy, and also her autonomy.

The court clarified that a child ‘born alive’ could sue a third party for injuries caused to them before their birth, but they cannot sue their own mother in a like way.

The reasoning of the court was that if a duty of care was found to exist between a mother and her ‘unborn child’, then mothers more generally would find themselves legally liable whenever engaging in activities that could potentially cause injury to a fetus were she pregnant. This would then impact all pregnant women as well as those who may become pregnant one day.

Moreover, the prospect of conducting a trial against one’s own mother could have significant emotional ramifications and harm the relationship, opined the Supreme Court of Canada. Ultimately, the court determined that this was a policy issue for the legislature to tackle and no duty of care was imposed on Cynthia Dobbson.

Justice Major did not agree with the majority of the other judges. He found that while a mother had no duty of care to a fetus, she does have a duty of care to a child (born alive), so long as she knew or should have reasonably known that she was expecting at the time the incident took place. He found there to be no legal nor public policy reason to decide against a pregnant woman being liable in this manner on the basis that it would restrict the mother’s freedom.

His opinion was that this pregnant woman did not have a right to be a negligent driver, and therefore the ‘born child’s’ claim does not impede on any legal right of the pregnant woman. To summarize his view, to grant a pregnant woman immunity from the consequences of her conduct would set up a legal conundrum since it would give an advantage to a defendant that no other defendant in tort law would have.

Law’s Mum Case Commentary

Graeme Hamilton (see link above) wrote that this “landmark” case “rallied forces on both sides of the abortion debate and led Supreme Court justices to muse over the rights of a foetus.”

First – the National Post wrote that Cynthia Dobson was driving her car toward Moncton from the family home & was following her husband’s vehicle along with other drivers on a windswept highway. Her car hit a pile of slush & she swerved into the other lane, crashing into a moving truck.

So, what was and is the Dobson really about? What was it that they sought and why did they need to attempt this legally drastic action?

As stated when interviewed by The National Post the family stated the law suit was “about looking after Ryan.” It was about care. It was about support. Of a child with a significant medical condition.

“It’s being done for Ryan’s benefit and Ryan’s benefit alone,” said Ann MacAulay, half of the wife-and-husband legal team representing Ryan. Bev Price, Ryan’s maternal grandmother stated in the same interview that “It’s suing the insurance company for Ryan’s sake,” added . “That’s what it has always been.”

The “problem” was, that to be able request that the insurance company pay out, Ryan — represented by his maternal grandfather, Gerald Price, as litigation guardian — needed to be able to sue his own mother in tort, for legal negligence. As the National Post writer noted, no child in Canada had sued their own mother for injuries sustained while she was pregnant.

I address this case to make one point only.

It is that mothers with severely disabled children frequently agree to socially & legally risky things in order access support & care for their medically disabled children. Dobson is nothing new in this particular regard.

In this case, had the Supreme Court of Canada found that young Ryan could sue his own mother in negligence, and had he been able to show that she had breached a duty of care that caused his condition, then that would effectively have operated as nasty precedent in the life of his mother. Such a finding would ‘legally colour’ how she was perceived outside of tort law. And even socially. And as the court noted, there could be harmful emotional aspects as well.

Were child welfare authorities to investigate the family, as is too often the case where there are grossly under-supported mothers with medically complex kiddos & youth, their investigation would uncover that Cynthia Dobbs had already been found legally negligent by a court.

Although the test for negligence under child welfare legislation is not the same as it is in tort law, contrary to the children’s song sticks and stones, names (like “negligent mother”) can cause legal damage down the road.

Dobbs was prepared to assume all of that risk, for Ryan. For his future care. So that his needs could be met. She would not have appreciated that it may also have made him more legally vulnerable.

All of which means that Dobson v Dobson was not at all what it was framed as at the time. It was about disability care & support in the context of #complexmothering. And it was about the extraordinary lengths a caregiving mother would go to to access it.

How was that missed you may wonder? It was missed because complex care of infants and children is way off the radar in law. Not only in tort law but in many areas of law where mothers seek support. It was missed because it was not the issue that went before the court. The practice of finding ways and means to access support for severely disabled children is much the same now, as it was in 1999, when this cases was decided. Mothers try this way and they try that way, and as in Dobson often times they do not prevail.