Going up against the SAAQ? You'll probably lose

Lise Ouellet's battle against Quebec's automobile insurance board dragged on for almost a decade.

She was in two traffic accidents, one in 2009 and another in 2010, that left her with major injuries to the vertebra in her neck.

Numbness in her arms, migraines and a major depressive episode followed. Her doctor put her on medical leave from her job as a head cosmetician.

"I couldn't do anything anymore. My body couldn't keep up; my brain couldn't keep up. Nothing worked."

The Quebec automobile insurance board, known by its acronym, the SAAQ, decided Ouellet was able to work — as a cost recovery clerk, a job she says she isn't qualified to do.

Ouellet decided to contest that decision before Quebec's administrative tribunal, which rules in cases involving the SAAQ.

She sold her condo and got by on her disability payments and the $90 a month she was receiving from the SAAQ — an amount it determined to be the difference between her salary as a cosmetician and what she would make if she went to work as a clerk.

"It's ridiculous. It makes no sense," she said.

In 2018, the SAAQ agreed to compensate her for the four-year period during which she was unable to work.

But hers is something of a rare case — Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête has found that the tribunal rules in favour of the SAAQ in more than 85 per cent of cases.

In comparison, the Quebec's labour tribunal, which hears workers' compensation cases, rules in favour of CNESST, the province's workplace health and safety board, 43 per cent of the time.

The SAAQ was created to facilitate payments to accident victims, but victims and experts alike say the system has become increasingly legally contentious, and those who contest decisions pay the price.

Making the right decisions

Mario Vaillancourt, a spokesperson for the SAAQ, says the fact that it wins most of its cases is a testament to its ability to judge situations.

"That means that from the start, the SAAQ made the right decisions about those files," he said.

In 2017, there were:

  • More than 28,000 traffic accidents causing bodily harm, involving 37,000 people.
  • More than 20,000 compensation requests submitted to the SAAQ.
  • Almost 2,700 objections to SAAQ decisions submitted by accident victims.

Ouellet hired Michel Cyr, a retired lawyer who has been representing traffic accident victims for more than 40 years, to defend her.

He said he believes the SAAQ is benefiting from the insurance system's deep pockets by wearing out victims, both financially and psychologically.

"People find themselves in catastrophic situations. They lose their homes, their partners; they lose everything, eventually."

When it was created in 1978, the SAAQ's mandate was to compensate accident victims without finding fault, taking private companies out of the equation to avoid high insurance rates and long delays.

But over the years, it has strayed from that mandate, Cyr said.

When the SAAQ contradicts the SAAQ

Mélanie Patenaude was in a car accident in 2012. From May 2014 to April 2017, no money was coming in, she said.

"I was eating once a day. Sometimes, I skipped a day. If my daughter had something to eat, things were fine," she said.

Her doctor put her on medical leave, but the SAAQ decided she was fit to work.

She tried to return to work twice, and both times, she was unable to. Even her employer told her to stay home.

She works for the SAAQ.

Patenaude eventually agreed to a mediation hearing. Her lawyer discovered two doctors' notes in the file which were written by a doctor who works for the SAAQ, who never met with her in person, and concluded the issues she was experiencing were not linked to the traffic accident.

Hers isn't the first case in which the same doctor, Luc Marcoux, submitted a note rejecting claims that an injury was caused by a traffic accident without ever meeting the victim.

But that evidence is admissible to the Quebec administrative tribunal that hears SAAQ cases.

The mediation process was cut short, and so far Patenaude has spent $5,300 to get other medical opinions.

She is now waiting for her case to be heard by the administrative tribunal.