The Law of Unintended Consequences

I like to listen to AM640 in the mornings on my way to work.  John Oakley has a business analyst by the name of Lou Schizas on near the top of the hour.  He is conservative and has a good head on his shoulders, so he is ok in my books.  Lou often refers to the law of unintended consequences in his chats with Mr. Oakley.  The basic premise of this law is “beware of what you wish for”.  The Stones took a more positive spin with their famous line: “you don’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you might find, you get what you need”.

Eugene Meehan is a lawyer in Ottawa who deals with Supreme Court of Canada matters.  He has an email notice that goes out at least once a week updating on cases that have appeared before the Court.  The law of unintended consequences came up in one of the case summaries, sent to me this week:


The Applicant owned a cottage on land adjacent to the land of his sister, the Respondent Ms. Tétrault, with whom he had a strained relationship.  In March 1999, Ms. Tétrault informed him that she intended to fence the property and make him pay part of the cost.  In November 1999, she carried out her plan and decided to put up a fence along what she considered the boundary of her property.  Since she had already been a victim of mischief and she suspected that her brothers were the guilty parties, she wanted to obtain evidence in case there was any trouble.  For that purpose, she hired a private investigator, the Respondent Mr. Harnell, who hid in a bush and trained his camera on the Applicant’s property so he could take photographs when Ms. Tétrault put in the fence posts.  The Applicant was coming back from hunting with his weapon slung across his shoulder when he saw Mr. Harnell hiding in the bush.  He asked him what he was doing there.  To avoid revealing his assignment, Mr. Harnell answered that he was doing checks for Hydro-Québec.  Since there were no electrical transmission lines in the immediate area and it was a Sunday afternoon, the Applicant did not believe him.  During the previous weeks, the Applicant had heard about an aged couple from the area who had been beaten and murdered.  Upon hearing such a frivolous story, the Applicant, whose aged and sick mother was inside the cottage, thought that he might be dealing with one of the assailants, who had not yet been arrested.  He therefore told Mr. Harnell that he was going to get the police to come.  Mr. Harnell felt threatened and wanted to return to his vehicle.  Thinking that Mr. Harnell wanted to flee, the Applicant grabbed him by his shirt collar.  Because of the Applicant’s violent behaviour and the fact that he was armed, Mr. Harnell sprayed him in the face with pepper spray.  In the meantime, the Applicant’s brother arrived and the police were called to the scene.  The Applicant brought an action against the Respondents seeking $99,900 in damages.  Mr. Harnell argued self-defence.  Ms. Tétrault supported him and added that she was not liable for his actions.  Through cross demands, both of the Respondents claimed damages and their extrajudicial costs.  Trial judge in sum:  Applicant’s action dismissed; Mr. Harnell’s cross demand allowed and Applicant ordered to pay him $5,000; Ms. Tétrault’s cross demand dismissed.  The C.A. dismissed the appeal.
Maurice Tétrault v. Marie-Michèle Tétrault and Robert Alfred Harnell  (Que. C.A., November 17, 2010) (34064)  “The application for leave to appeal…is dismissed without costs.” 

So, to summarize, we have a sibling dispute which begat a fence, which begat a private detective, which begat a case of mistaken identity, which begat a pepper spraying, which begat a lawsuit that took 12 years to get all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

That was one expensive fence.

Paul H. Voorn, LL.B.