Getting To The Bottom Of What A Spouse Is

There’s a lot to be said about ensuring employment contracts are clear and unambiguous. That said, situations can arise where a seemingly easy to define term is used only to end up being the topic of litigation. Take for example a recent decision from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in which the court had to determine whether an arbitrator’s liberal definition of “spouse” found in common law should apply to the Insurance Act.

“Spouse” as defined by the Insurance Act

The claim stemmed from the driver of a car, who was involved in an car accident in the parking lot of her place of work. She initially sought accident benefits from Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Company of Canada (“Royal”) as the policy holder’s spouse. Royal argued that the other driver’s insurance company should be the first to pay benefits.

According to section 268(2)(2)(i) of the Insurance Act, a non-occupant of an automobile (such as the driver) has recourse firstly against “the insurer of an automobile in respect of which the non-occupant is an insured” and only if recovery is not available can the injured person seek recourse from “the insurer of the automobile that struck the non-occupant.” The spouse of an insured person also falls within the definition of “insured person.” The Insurance Act also defines a spouse as “either of two persons who…have lived together in a conjugal relationship outside of marriage, continuously for a period of not less than three years. It was the driver’s position that she was the spouse of the insured.

At arbitration

During the arbitration it came out that the couple had only moved in together one year prior to the accident, meaning they fell short of being spouses as defined by the Insurance Act. They had been dating since 2008, and while they often stayed at one another’s home, they did not co-mingle their assets, have joint bank accounts, or financially support each other. Testimony from the driver’s partner during the arbitration stated that the couple would have moved in together earlier, but the driver was living with her mother, who required care.

The arbitrator did not apply the strict definition of “spouse” as it falls under the Insurance Act. Instead, she turned to the Family Law Act. A Supreme Court of Canada decision from 1999 took a flexible approach to the definition of “spouse” as it pertains to the Family Law Act. This flexible approach looks at a number of factors, including how the couple is socially perceived.

The arbitrator stated the while the ordinary meaning of “live together in a conjugal relationship” would require the couple to actually live together, the courts have determined that “the analysis must be broader than that.”

The arbitrator found that the driver was a spouse, as defined in the Insurance Act, and as such was insured under the policy.

At appeal, the court was critical of the arbitrator’s approach to the definition of “spouse,” writing

“The Arbitrator embraced a body of Family Law Act cases that eschew a literal interpretation of the phrase “live together in a conjugal relationship”, in favour of an interpretation that plugs that phrase into the distinctive policy context of spousal support. She then applied those cases to the Insurance Act, without explaining why a policy interpretation from family law should apply there. Ironically, the Arbitrator rejected a literal interpretation in favor of a contextualized, policy interpretation, only to apply that interpretation literally, and without context, to a different statutory scheme embodying a different set of policies. “

The court takes a different approach

The court was careful to point out that the approach to the definition of “spouse” required by the Insurance Act is different than that of the Family Law Act. Issues around family law require a broad definition of “spouse,” but in an insurance law matter, a strict definition is necessary. The court noted that a couple could, in fact, be considered spouses under the Family Law Act but not be spouses under the Insurance Act.

The court’s decision meant that the driver’s partner’s insurance did not stand in priority to pay the benefits from the accident. Instead, the priority fell on the insurance provider of the other driver in the accident.

It is important to seek the advice of an experienced personal injury lawyer if you find yourself injured as the result of an automobile accident. The personal injury lawyers at Derfel Injury Law work tirelessly to achieve the best possible resolution to your accident injury claim. Please call us at 416.847.3580 or reach out to us online to discuss how we can help you today.