Rioting in the Streets? You break it, you fix it!

June 15, 2018 | Laura Bambara, Mary Delli Quadri

The Supreme Court of Canada just held in Montréal (Ville) v. Lonardi (2018 SCC 29), that rioters who vandalize property are responsible for their wrongdoings, so long as it is possible to determine the exact harm caused by an individual. All rioters are not in the same boat and cannot be held solidarily liable for the damages they caused.

In 2008, the Montréal Canadians defeated the Boston Bruins in the NHL playoffs and celebrations quickly escalated into a riot during which fifteen police patrol cars were vandalized.  Authorities were able to identify and arrest approximately twenty individuals who committed various wrongful acts, from breaking windows for some, to setting cars on fire for others.

The City of Montreal (the “City”) brought multiple actions against the rioters before the Court of Quebec that were ultimately joined. The trial judge held the various defendants liable for the losses claimed by the City, but (with the exception of two individuals) refused to sanction the City’s position that they should condemn them on a solidary basis. The City appealed to the Quebec Court of Appeal, which ultimately disagreed with the City’s argument on solidarity holding that article 1480 CCQ codifies existing case law and should only be applied where it is impossible to determine, in either case, which wrongdoer actually caused the injury.

Through Justice Gascon writing for the majority, the Supreme Court of Canada (the “SCC”) affirmed the Court of Appeal’s decision.  Canada’s highest court reiterated that there are two conditions that must be met for solidary liability to apply: First, it must be impossible to link a particular individual to a specific injury.  Second, there must be a common intention, as a group, to pursue the act of vandalism.

The purpose of these conditions is to compensate to the victim in situations where a group acted together and it is impossible to discern which member of the group caused a specific damage. This is sometimes seen in hunting accidents, where it is impossible to tell which hunter caused the fatal shot, so the group of hunters are held solidarily responsible.

The SCC held that even within the context of a riot, it can be possible to link an individual’s action to a specific damage. For example, one person broke the windshield of the patrol car while another one set a car on fire. In this situation, the two people are responsible to cover the damage that they personally caused. This is in contrast to a situation where they would be responsible as a group for both the broken windshield and the fire.

Moreover, the SCC also held that in order to have solidary apply as a group, the group must know each other and must have had some sort of communication or common intention regarding the joint act of vandalism. In the 2008 riot, the participants did not know one another and the acts of vandalism were committed throughout the night, so the SCC further reiterated that there could be no solidary responsibility.

Dissenting, Justice Côté expressed the view that the rioters should be seen as a group, not as individuals, and as such should be held solidarily liable for the vandalism as a whole.

This decision confirms that even when a group of people riot together, the individual members of the group will be held personally liable for their acts if these acts can be distinguished. Perhaps next time the Habs win in the playoffs, we can just sit back and enjoy instead!