Municipal Matrix: Distinguishing Policy from Operational Decisions
In Binette v. Salmon Arm, the B.C. Court of Appeal had an opportunity to analyze the difference between policy and operational decision making in the context of a municipal liability claim. In Binette, the plaintiff tripped on the base of a broken traffic sign. The City had previously discovered a detached crosswalk sign in a nearby yard and failed to locate the base of the sign. The failure was initially as a result of snow cover and eventually due to the City no longer looking.
Although the City’s sign replacement policy did not require the sign to be replaced immediately the City acknowledged that its standard practice was to use its best efforts to locate and remediate immediate hazards. In this instance, the City inspector had ‘walked the general area and shoveled some areas’ looking for the broken base but being unable to locate the base he stored the broken sign until the snow melted. This was found not to be ‘best efforts’ given that he knew that the base of the sign was an immediate hazard.
This case presents the classic formulation of the test for municipal liability. Governmental authorities are immunized from liability where a loss stems from policy decisions made in good faith. Resources are finite and municipalities must be able to make decisions regarding allocation of resources without being second guessed. To the contrary they are not immunized when a loss arises from the implementation of the policy decision at an operational level. If you are prosecuting or defending municipal claims (whether it is a slip and fall, infrastructure, construction or inspection failure) it is critical to understand the difference between a policy decision (to identify and remedy an immediate hazard) and the implementation of that policy at an operational level (not continuing to look for the immediate hazard until it was found). It is often a nuanced distinction.