Teresa Scassa - Blog

Monday, 23 January 2012 17:25

The Ontario Court of Appeal Recognizes a New Privacy Tort

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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In its unanimous decision in Jones v. Tsige, 2012 ONCA 32, the Ontario Court of Appeal recognized at least one subset of a common law right of action for invasion of privacy. This subset, which the court calls the tort of “intrusion upon seclusion” is one of four privacy-related torts identified by U.S. law professor William L. Prosser in his article “Privacy”((1960), 48 Cal. L.R. 383 at 389), and adopted by the U.S. Restatement (Second of Torts) (2010). Its recognition in this case is described by Justice Sharpe as “an incremental step that is consistent with the role of this court to develop the common law in a manner consistent with the changing needs of society.”(at para 65).

Jones was the ex-spouse of Tsige’s current common law partner. Ostensibly out of a dispute with her partner, and questions about whether he was making child support payments, Jones began checking Tsige’s bank account information, to which she had access as an employee of Tsiges bank, the Bank of Montreal (BMO). The surreptitious checking of financial information occurred on at least 174 occasions over a 4 year period. After Jones voiced her suspicions to BMO, Tsige was confronted and admitted to the conduct and was disciplined by her employer. Jones brought a law suit against Tsige for invasion of privacy, seeking damages in the amount of $70,000 and punitive damages of $20,000. Her case was dismissed by summary judgment on the basis that there was no common law tort of invasion of privacy in Ontario. It was this decision which was appealed to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal outlined the four privacy-related torts identified by Prosser and adopted by the restatement:


1. Intrusion upon the plaintiff’s seclusion or solitude, or into his private affairs.

2. Public disclosure of embarrassing private facts about the plaintiff.

3. Publicity which places the plaintiff in a false light in the public eye.

4. Appropriation, for the defendant’s advantage, of the plaintiff’s name or likeness. (reproduced at para. 18 of the Court of Appeal decision).


Justice Sharpe, writing for the unanimous court, noted that the tort of misappropriation of personality was already recognized in Ontario. Rather than recognize a broad tort of invasion of privacy, he chose, on these facts, merely to address the more limited tort of intrusion upon seclusion. Justice Sharpe noted that, in the Restatement, the tort of intrusion upon seclusion “includes physical intrusions into private places as well as listening or looking, with or without mechanical aids, into the plaintiff’s private affairs.” (at para 20).

Justice Sharpe reviewed prior case law from Ontario and noted that other courts had awarded damages for wrongs that involved privacy dimensions without explicitly recognizing a tort of invasion of privacy per se, or had at least declined to dismiss actions for invasion of privacy on the basis that the disclosed no reasonable cause of action. He also canvassed Charter privacy jurisprudence, noting that this case law “identifies privacy as being worthy of constitutional protection and integral to an individual’s relationship with the rest of society and the state.” (at para 39). He noted that “the common law should be developed in a manner consistent with Charter values” (at para 46), and that such an approach would favour the recognition of a right of action for intrusion upon seclusion.

Justice Sharpe next considered the relevance of various pieces of privacy legislation. The court below had expressed the view that the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), provided recourse for persons in the plaintiff’s position, and thus supported the view that the recognition of a tort action was unnecessary. Justice Sharpe corrected this erroneous view, noting that PIPEDA dealt with the information practices of “organizations” engaged in commercial activity, and did not address the particular circumstances that arose in this case (or that might arise in many others). Unfortunately, his reasons were not as complete as they might be on this point, and contain some misapprehensions of the nature and scope of PIPEDA. For example, Justice Sharpe erroneously refers to PIPEDA as “dealing with “organizations” subject to federal jurisdiction and does not speak to the existence of a civil cause of action in the province.” (at para 50). PIPEDA’s scope of application is much broader than just federally-regulated organizations; for example, it applies to all organizations in Ontario that engaged in “commercial activity”. Justice Sharpe also indicates that another reason that recourse under PIPEDA does not suffice is that it does not give a right to damages. This is not true; sections 12 and 14 of PIPEDA give complainants the option of seeking damages before the Federal Court once they have received a report of findings from the Commissioner. But Justice Sharpe is directly on point when he notes that PIPEDA would only have given Jones recourse against BMO, and not against Tsige. This is extremely important; PIPEDA’s scope of application (to organizations engaged in commercial activity) and its express exclusion of application to domestic contexts or where individuals are acting for private purposes (where so many truly egregious violations of privacy occur) mean that PIPEDA is only a very selective data protection tool and not a broad recourse for privacy invasive conduct.

Justice Sharpe also canvasses the four existing provincial statutes that create causes of action for invasion of privacy, as well as case law in the U.S. and commonwealth jurisdictions before arriving at the principles that should guide the newly minted tort in Ontario. He noted that the evolving case law supports the recognition of the new tort, and cited academic authority in support of this view. He then noted the importance of technological change as a driver for the recognition of privacy rights. He observed that “[a]s the facts of this case indicate, routinely kept electronic data bases render our most personal financial information vulnerable.” (at para 67). Similarly, health information databases pose risks, as to the innumerable other digital records we leave in our wake as we carry out our daily activities. He stated: “It is within the capacity of the common law to evolve to respond to the problem posed by the routine collection and aggregation of highly personal information that is readily accessible in electronic form.” (at para 68).

According to Justice Sharpe, the facts before him “cry out for a remedy”. Noting that Tsige’s actions were deliberate and sustained, as well as “shocking”, he observed that “the law of this province would be sadly deficient if we were required to send Jones away without a legal remedy.” (at para 69). He distilled the elements of the tort from the U.S. Restatement and summarized them in these terms:


The key features of this cause of action are, first, that the defendant’s conduct must be intentional, within which I would include reckless; second that the defendant must have invaded, without lawful justification, the plaintiff’s private affairs or concerns; and third, that a reasonable person would regard the invasion as highly offensive causing distress, humiliation or anguish. (at para 71)


However, he cautioned that “given the intangible nature of the interest protected, damages for intrusion upon seclusion will ordinarily be measured by a modest conventional sum.” (at para 71).

Justice Sharpe seems concerned that the tort must be narrowly drawn so as not to open any floodgates of litigation. He cautions that a claim for intrusion upon seclusion “will arise only for deliberate and significant invasions of personal privacy.” (at para 72) He also warns that “Claims from individuals who are sensitive or unusually concerned about their privacy are excluded: it is only intrusions into matters such as one’s financial or health records, sexual practices and orientation, employment, diary or private correspondence that, viewed objectively on the reasonable person standard, can be described as highly offensive.” (at para 72) It is not clear that such an enumeration is ultimately helpful; while it does give some sense of the ambit of the tort he envisages, it may also lead overly cautious lower court judges to unduly restrain the parameters of a tort that may need to adapt and respond to our ever-shifting technological environment. Similarly, the standard of “highly offensive” is a tricky one, as is the perspective of the “reasonable” as opposed to the unusually privacy sensitive person.

Justice Sharpe is also sensitive to the need to balance privacy with other potentially competing interests, such as freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Thus, there is no absolute right of privacy, each case will require a contextual examination.

On the issue of damages, Justice Sharpe notes that it is not necessary to establish proof of loss (although it presumably would be open to a plaintiff to do so, had he or she incurred specific quantifiable losses associated with the invasive activity.) Where no proof of specific damages is advanced, Justice Sharpe, after an evaluation of damage awards in a series of cases, sets an upper limit of $20,000. He also distils the following criteria to provide guidance to courts in assessing where on the spectrum (from $0 to $20,000) a damage award should lie. A court should consider:


1. the nature, incidence and occasion of the defendant’s wrongful act;

2. the effect of the wrong on the plaintiff’s health, welfare, social, business or financial position;

3. any relationship, whether domestic or otherwise, between the parties;

4. any distress, annoyance or embarrassment suffered by the plaintiff arising from the wrong; and

5. the conduct of the parties both before and after the wrong, including any apology or offer of amends made by the defendant. (at para 87)


Aggravated or punitive damages awards are neither precluded nor encouraged, although Justice Sharpe notes that these would only be available in “exceptional cases calling for exceptional remedies.” (at para 88). On the facts before him, he settled on a damage award of $10,000, noting that although the actions were deliberate and repeated, the defendant had apologized and was genuinely remorseful. He also noted that she had not publicized the plaintiff’s financial information, and her actions caused no embarrassment or other public consequences. He declined to award punitive damages. Perhaps surprisingly, he did not award costs to either party, citing the novel issues raised by the case.

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