A lawsuit filed by a young Montreal woman against the city and the transport authority in Quebec is raising questions around government responsibility and just who is at fault when individuals licensed to do business within a municipality’s boundaries commit a terrible crime.
Marie-Anne Legault alleges she was sexually assaulted by a Montreal taxi driver in September 2014. She blames the city and Quebec Transport Commission – the provincial taxi-service watchdog – for failing to protect her safety and that of other women using the public service.
Legault is seeking $250,000 in damages but her lawyer, Leslie-Anne Wood, said money is not what is motivating her client.
“She is deeply concerned about the safety of others. I think this is one of the most important motivator for her behind this lawsuit,” said Wood in an interview with Yahoo Canada News.
“She has a sense of duty for prevent this from happening again.”
The case is in the early stages with both the city and transit authority yet to file statements of defence. None of the allegations made have been proven in court. A preliminary hearing date has been set for April 27.
Broadly speaking, municipal-law specialist Leo Longo said it can’t be assumed that licensing bodies are responsible for the criminal behaviour of an individual, even if that person is authorized to do business within the municipality or region.
Business licences, typically, are issued as a means of municipal revenue generation to support inspection and enforcement expenses. But they also take into account public safety insofar as they intend to ensure businesses are kept clean and hygienic, equipment operates properly and that customers have an official process through which to lodge a complaint, if necessary.
A taxi company, in particular is a public service “and you want the public to be protected, not gouged for fees, and that the taxi is properly maintained and kept clean and presentable,” Longo said.
But, he added, “it’s not on its face an assurance you are not going to be in a car accident in a vehicle driven by a licensed cab driver, or, unfortunately in this case, have a rogue driver that does something criminal in his car.”
One caveat: “If if could be demonstrated that incidences of sexual assaults by licensed cab drivers is a matter the city was aware of and is not doing anything about, then there could be an argument about its liability,” Longo said.
In the case involving Legault, the claim hinges on what Wood calls a “positive obligation” on the part of public institutions to intervene in situations where public safety is at risk.
The lawsuit claims Montreal’s taxi bureau and police were aware of a “worrying” number of sexual assault complaints made against taxi drivers in the city and did nothing to warn women.
A motion filed in support of the case references the results of a Freedom of Information request obtained by Wood that found the number of sex assaults by cab drivers reported to police in Montreal rose to 33 in 2013, up from 12 one year earlier.
Wood said this is the first case that has similar facts where part of the argument is that police knew that sexual assaults involving drivers were happening at a worrisome frequently “and their approach was that they didn’t do anything.”
“She (Legault) wants the city to change the way things are done right now. If things don’t change this is going to continue happening,” said Wood.
The taxi driver who allegedly assaulted Legault is also accused of at least one other similar attack on a woman, according to the motion.
Wood said, to her knowledge, the driver still holds his taxi permit. She said police are conducting a separate criminal investigation into the case.