Category: Promissory Estoppel

Plaintiff’s Evidence Falls Short In Establishing Promissory Estoppel

In Tolentino v. Gill, the Plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle accident. He did not retain a lawyer, choosing rather to deal with an ICBC adjuster on his own. The Plaintiff contends that he asked the adjuster if he needed a lawyer, to which she responded that he did not. He was under the impression that the adjuster would obtain some documentation and medical documentation as well, and that she would get back to him to work something out. He never heard back from the adjuster, and his claim was later closed. The adjuster denies that they talked about the need to get a lawyer. The Plaintiff did not commence formal legal proceedings until about one and a half years past the two year limitation period. The issue for the Court’s determination was whether was the Defendants would be estopped from relying on an expiry of limitation period defence due to the words or conduct of an ICBC adjuster. The court discussed the legal doctrine of promissory estoppel, and how it applied to the facts of this case. Unfortunately for the Plaintiff, the Court held that the evidence fell short of establishing promissory estoppel.


[5]           The plaintiff relies on the doctrine of promissory estoppel. He says that the statements made by Ms. Brunac-White amounted to an acknowledgement of liability, the start of negotiations, and a communication that there were no legal impediments to the claim other than determining quantum.


[6]           The legal principles with respect to promissory estoppel are clearly described in Maracle v Travellers Indemnity Company of Canada, 1991 CanLII 58 (SCC), [1991] 2 SCR 50. The party relying on the doctrine must establish two things:

1.         the other party, by words or conduct, made a promise or assurance that was intended to affect their legal relationship and to be acted on; and

2.         in reliance on the promise or assurance, the first party acted on it or in some way changed his position to his detriment.


[9]           Promissory estoppel can operate to prevent an insurer from relying on a limitation period where a promise or assurance is made to that effect. An admission of liability does not in itself establish promissory estoppel but it is a factor from which the court may infer that a promise was made not to rely on a limitation period. As the court noted in Maracle at 59:


… an admission of liability which is to be taken as a promise not to rely on the limitation period must be such that the trier of fact can infer from it that it was so intended. There must be words or conduct from which it can be inferred that the admission was to apply whether the case was settled or not, and that the only issue between the parties, should litigation ensue, is the issue of quantum.


[10]        Some doubt has been expressed as to whether this court has inherent equitable jurisdiction to relieve against the statutory limitation periods contained in the Limitation Act: see Field v Harvey, 2012 BCSC 456 (CanLII), 2012 BCSC 456 at paras. 32-35. The concern is that the application of estoppel would render the statutory provision meaningless. However, in Macdonald v Macdonald 1996 CanLII 1360 (BC SC), (1996), 21 BCLR (3d) 379, this court concluded that estoppel is available as an argument whenever a limitation period is relied upon, regardless of the source. Harvey J. noted that the court in Maracle appeared to assume the applicability of the doctrine of estoppel to statutory limitation periods.


[11]        I would tend to concur with the view expressed in Macdonald. If estoppel applies in a given case, it does not render a statutory limitation meaningless; rather it renders it unenforceable in a particular circumstance on the basis of equitable principles. In Maracle, the limitation period was a statutory condition of an insurance policy; in Macdonald, the limitation period was the six month period in the Wills Variation Act, RSBC 1996, c 490. I see no material difference in principle between these other statutory limitation periods and those in the more generalLimitation Act. However, in Chan v Lee Estate, 2004 BCCA 644 (CanLII), 2004 BCCA 644, while estoppel was applied to the limitation period in the Wills Variation Act, Newbury JA (at para. 29) declined to comment on whether estoppel may be applied to extend or postpone a limitation period in the Limitation Act, “which has been said to provide a complete code and contains a series of detailed postponement provisions.”


[12]        In any event, it is not necessary for me to determine this issue, as I have concluded that the evidence in this case falls short of establishing the necessary elements for promissory estoppel.

 [25]        To ground a claim in promissory estoppel, Mr. Tolentino must first establish that Ms. Brunac-White assured him that the defendant’s admission of liability applied at any time and was intended to affect their legal relationship and to be acted on. I agree that Ms. Brunac-White was more knowledgeable than Mr. Tolentino about the legalities of the claim but I am not satisfied that her communication to him reasonably implied that there would be no legal impediments to settling his claim. Although liability was not in issue and the adjuster expected the case to settle, the parties had not begun negotiations in any meaningful way. There was no discussion about time limits. The relevant discussion was not in relation to Part 7 benefits. There are no words or conduct from which I can infer that the implicit admission of liability for the bodily injury claim was intended to apply whether or not the matter settled and regardless of time. The adjuster intended only that she and Mr. Tolentino would be in a position to discuss settlement within a relatively brief period of time, once she obtained the additional medical records.