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Ayotte c. Chiaramonte

2019 QCCS 851

SUPERIOR COURT

 

CANADA

PROVINCE OF QUEBEC

DISTRICT OF

laval

No:

 540-17-013339-188

 

 

DATE:

 March 13th, 2019

_____________________________________________________________________

 

BY

THE HONOURABLE

karen kear-jodoin J.S.C.

_____________________________________________________________________

 

James Ayotte

 

 Plaintiff

v.

 

Nadia Chiaramonte

 

 -and-

 

Jessica Gubenschek

 

 Defendants

 

 

JUDGMENT on defamation DEMAND

 

[1]           Mr Ayotte claims that the Defendants have maliciously tarnished his reputation resulting in a significant loss of income. He also claims moral and punitive damages. At trial, he desisted from his claim against Ms Chiaramonte. Ms Gubenschek did not answer to the present Demand and the matter proceeded by default.

[2]           By way of preliminary comment, the Court notes that Ms Gubenschek did not receive personal service of the present proceedings. The bailiff’s report indicates that service was made by leaving the proceedings in a sealed envelope on the door of her residence.[1] The bailiff’s report further indicates that, on the day of service, he had direct verbal communication with Ms Gubenschek at which time she confirmed her address. Mr Ayotte testified that Ms Gubenschek is well aware of the litigation but has expressed no interest in participating in same. He adds that a mutual friend recently approached him in an effort to resolve the dispute. She has made no effort to contact Mr Ayotte or his counsel. 

[3]           Mr Ayotte is a certified personal trainer in the area of bodybuilding, competition preparation, personalized training programs and diet plans.[2] The thrust of his business is preparing athletes to attain professional standing. He commenced his business during the latter part of 2015 with Ms Gubenschek as his first client. She had aspirations to compete professionally and Mr Ayotte was prepared to assist her. He provided her with training free of charge. He paid some of her expenses to enable her to register in competitions such as entry fees, hairdressing, tanning and makeup. He acknowledged that his actions were not solely altruistic. He believed that Ms Gubenschek had great potential and that her success would be a valuable marketing tool to promote his business. He trained and prepared Ms Gubenschek for three regional shows and competitions the last of which, in November 2016, she finished in first place.

[4]           Mr Ayotte claims that Ms Gubenschek’s attitude then changed. She wanted preferential treatment frequently arriving late for her training sessions and did not maintain good training habits. He advised her in November 2016 that he no longer wished to train her. She allegedly begged him to continue to train her for the competition scheduled for June 2017. He provided her with the necessary training and incurred expenses on her behalf to enter the competition. Three weeks prior to same, Ms Gubenschek terminated her relationship with Mr Ayotte. She went on to win the competition giving credit to her new coach of three weeks and without mention of Mr Ayotte. She proceeded to block him from all of her social media. They have not spoken with each other since June 2017. Ms Gubenschek continues to be trained by the direct competitor of Mr Ayotte. 

[5]           In August 2018, Ms Chiaramonte retained the services of Mr Ayotte to prepare her for the amateur Olympia competition in Las Vegas scheduled for September 12, 2018. Mr Ayotte states that he demands very high standards from his athletes. He alleges that she lacked the commitment to follow the necessary training to compete. The day following the competition, Mr Ayotte advised her that he would no longer train her.[3] On September 18, 2018, Ms Chiaramonte demanded a full reimbursement of Mr Ayotte fees of $2000. Mr Ayotte refused.  Ms Chiaramonte threatened to sue him for emotional and verbal abuse and sexual harassment.[4]

[6]           This disagreement concerning the reimbursement of fees gave rise to a series of videos by Ms Chiaramonte’s published on her Instagram account on September 18, 2018.[5] She  alleged  that  Mr Ayotte abused her and stated, among others, as follows:

“…has made numerous assaults, sexual assaults, sexual harassment”

“…has F——kened threatened her in her life”

“…be aware of this F—king piece of s—t, fraud bag, asshole that he is.”

[7]           Although Ms Gubenschek had not had contact with Mr Ayotte since June 2017, she resurfaced with a vengeance in September 2018. Although it does not appear that the Defendants are friends, on September 19, 2018, Ms Gubenschek became aware of Ms Chiaramonte’s Instagram story and in reaction to same published a series of videos on her own Instagram account.  She encouraged everyone to go and look at the story published on Ms Chiaramonte’s Instagram account.[6] Ms Gubenschek adds, among others, that she: “hopes more women come out with the fact that Ayotte abused them”, “he needs to be stopped, he framed people, he mentally abused a lot of people, he sexually abused a lot of her friends and a lot of people that she personally knows”.

[8]           One video story did not satisfy Ms Gubenschek, she then proceeded to publish a series of more videos escalating her accusations that Mr Ayotte had sexually abused and/or harassed women. She added “#metoojames” referring to the Me Too movement against sexual harassment and assault.[7] In subsequent videos published on her Instagram account she states “This is a real talk”,[8] “#breakthesilence”,[9] “let’s put him away”.

[9]           In her Instagram video she also alleges that Mr Ayotte “pays athletes to compete and to take titles away from her each show”, adding that she has “never competed for money and that whoever tries to overthrow her and her titles by accepting bribes and money from Ayotte then they have another thing coming”.[10]

[10]        Ms Gubenschek had not yet finished with Mr Ayotte. She continued to publish several other videos stating “29 girls have come out saying that they have been victimized by Ayotte”[…]”in an attempt to give credence to her assertions, “[…]"everybody has a choice in life and she can decide to respect herself and say you know what, let me pay for my own things and be free from this f—king asshole.”

[11]        The Defendants made a concerted effort to ensure the maximum exposure and damage possible to Mr Ayotte’s reputation and career. Ms Gubenschek urged her followers to view Ms Chiaramonte’s Instagram account and, in turn, Ms Chiaramonte urged her followers to check Ms Gubenschek’s Instagram account.[11] Together they have approximately 65,000 followers on their Instagram accounts.

[12]        On September 19, 2018, a formal notice was forwarded to the Defendants demanding that they remove all videos posted on their respective Instagram accounts together with any comments relating to said videos and to refrain from publishing any further videos and or comments with respect to Mr Ayotte.[12]

[13]        Notwithstanding said notice, Ms Chiaramonte continued to publish videos on September 20, 2018, stating, “[…],if you did nothing wrong, then why are so many people coming forward with so much proof like I don’t understand why would people lie about this s—t.”[13]

[14]        The videos and comments were ultimately removed by the defendant but had been exposed to their followers for 72 hours. There is no evidence as to the number of persons who downloaded the videos and forwarded some to others.

[15]        On October 4, 2018, Mr Ayotte filed his motion in defamation and in violation of his rights to privacy on her dignity and protection of reputation.

1.            ISSUES IN DISPUTE

[16]        Are the videos and comments published by Ms Gubenschek on her Instagram account concerning Mr Ayotte defamatory so as to adversely affect his reputation? If so, what is the appropriate quantum of damages including pecuniary loss and moral and punitive damages?

2.            discussion and ANALYSIS

[17]        An action in defamation is governed by the article 1457 of the Civil Code of Québec.   It is based upon proof of fault, injury and a causal connection proven on the balance of probabilities.

[18]        The Court concludes that Mr Ayotte has established all three elements in support of his claim.

[19]        According to the Supreme Court defamation “consists in the communication of the spoken or written remarks that cause someone to lose in estimation or consideration, or that prompt unfavourable or unpleasant feelings towards him or her. The Court adds:[14]

33                              To demonstrate the first element of civil liability, the existence of injury, the plaintiff must convince the judge that the impugned remarks were defamatory.  The concept of defamation has been defined in several ways over the years.  Generally speaking, it is held that defamation [TRANSLATION] “consists in the communication of spoken or written remarks that cause someone to lose in estimation or consideration, or that prompt unfavourable or unpleasant feelings toward him or her”.

34                              Whether remarks are defamatory is determined by applying an objective standard (Hervieux-Payette v. Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montreal1997 CanLII 8276 (QC CS)[1998] R.J.Q. 131 (Sup. Ct.), at p. 143reversed on other grounds by Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montreal v. Hervieux-Payette, 2002 CanLII 8266 (QC CA)[2002] R.J.Q. 1669 (C.A.)).  In other words, we must ask whether an ordinary person would believe that the remarks made, when viewed as a whole, brought discredit on the reputation of another person.

[20]        The nature of the fault in defamation claims can be qualified as malicious or simply negligent. Beaudoin and Deslauriers distinguishes the nature of fault as follows:

La première est celle où le défendeur, sciemment, de mauvaise foi, avec intention de nuire, s'attaque à la réputation de la victime et cherche à la ridiculiser, à l'humilier, à l'exposer à la haine ou au mépris public ou d'un groupe.  La seconde résulte d'un comportement dont la volonté de nuire est absente, mais où le défendeur a, malgré tout, porté atteinte à la réputation de la victime par sa témérité, sa négligence, son impertinence ou son incurie.  Les deux conduites donnent ouverture à responsabilité et droit à réparation, sans qu'il existe de différence entre elles sur le plan du droit.  En d'autres termes, il convient de se référer aux règles ordinaires de la responsabilité civile et d'abandonner résolument l'idée fausse que la diffamation est seulement le fruit d'un acte de mauvaise foi emportant intention de nuire.[19][15]

[21]        The Court finds that Ms Gubenschek is responsible for the videos and comments published on her Instagram account. Moreover, there is no doubt that the videos and comments posted are defamatory, in that they were intended to discredit Mr Ayotte’s reputation in the eyes of an “ordinary person”. Ms Gubenschek comments invariably leads the viewer to believe that Mr Ayotte poses a danger to women alleging that he sexually harasses and abuses them.

[22]        If this was not enough, Ms Gubenschek also attacks Mr Ayotte’s integrity as a coach alleging that he has paid his athletes and that he has offered bribes to them to compete.

[23]        Mr Ayotte denies all allegations by the Defendants. There is no veracity which would suggest the veracity of the comments posted by the Defendants.

[24]        The evidence clearly demonstrates that the posting of the comments and videos posted by Ms Gubenschek was not a reckless and ill-considered act but rather was willfully intended to malign Mr Ayotte’s personal integrity, reputation and to adversely affect his career.

[25]        Mr Ayotte testified that he enjoys a stellar reputation as a personal coach in bodybuilding and competition preparation.  He has coached five athletes to professional standing. One of his athletes ranks 10th in the world in the Amateur Olympia competition held in Las Vegas. He relies upon social media and in particular Instagram and Facebook to build his business and to increase his clientele. He states that Instagram is a marketing tool that represents 90% of his visibility. He has 121,000 followers.[16] He states that the fitness industry is very significant but that the Montreal fitness community is, in fact, quite small. He asserts that information posted on social media spreads quickly in the Montreal fitness community.

[26]        Mr Ayotte vigorously denies all of the Defendants’ allegations.  He maintains that he has never sexually harassed or assaulted his athletes or any other person. He has not threatened or bribed any of his athletes or any other person. He has, at all relevant times, maintained the highest professional standards.

[27]        What are the damages sustained by Mr Ayotte?  

[28]        Mr Ayotte claims that he has suffered a loss of income of no less than $50,000. In support of his claim, he testified that after the success of one of his athletes in a competition, there is a significant increase in the demand for his services. In support of his claim he provides the Court with the details of his monthly income from June 2018 until December 2018 inclusively.[17] The evidence reveals that Mr Ayotte’s gross income during this period was as follows :

·         June - $29,172.  

·         July - $21,149.

·        August - $54,889.

·        September - $36,780.

·        October - $14,564.

·         November - $51,378.

·        December - $13,656.

[29]        During this period Mr Ayotte’s athletes participated in three competitions namely: in June, August and September. His athlete ranked 10th in the world at the Amateur Olympia competition which was held on September 12, 2018. In view of the foregoing he anticipated a surge in the demand for his services. He submits that he should have earned approximately $150,000 in October but claims a conservative amount of $50,000. Although Mr Ayotte may have suffered a loss of income, the Court is unable, based upon the evidence offered at trial, to quantify same nor is it able to conclude that any alleged loss of income is related to the defaming videos by the Defendants. In particular, the evidence does not support Mr Ayotte’s assertion that the demand for his services surged the month after a successful competition. By way of example following competitions in June and August, Mr Ayotte's in the following months was reduced. The evidence also reveals that Mr Ayotte’s income for the taxation year was $17,000 and his income for the taxation year 2018 was $200,000. The Court dismisses Mr Ayotte claim for loss of income.

[30]        Mr Ayotte also claims moral damages of $100,000. In a recent decision rendered by the Court of Appeal underscored that the determination of moral damages is not an easy task. The Court noted:[18]

[70]        Il demeure que chaque cas est un cas d’espèce[23] et que les dommages-intérêts doivent toujours être proportionnés à la gravité du préjudice effectivement subi par la victime[24]. En fait, comme cette Cour l’a récemment rappelé dans FTQ-Construction cLepage[25], la compensation du préjudice occasionné par des propos diffamatoires doit refléter à la fois « la gravité de l'atteinte objective, qui dépend en partie de celle de la faute, mais aussi les conséquences concrètes qui en découlent et dépendent de leur côté d'une variété de facteurs propres à la victime ».

[31]        With respect to the factors  to be considered in assessing the quantum of moral damages, the Court cites:[19]

[71]        Les auteurs Baudouin, Deslauriers et Moore ont d’ailleurs répertorié les facteurs habituellement retenus par les tribunaux dans l’évaluation des pertes non pécuniaires en matière de diffamation :

1-611     - Facteurs d'évaluation - Comme l'a bien montré un auteur, l'analyse des facteurs influant sur l'évaluation des pertes non pécuniaires est complexe. Le premier est la gravité de l'acte. S'agit-il d'un simple commentaire discourtois ou impoli, ou au contraire d'une attaque en règle? L'intention de l'auteur de la diffamation pour sa part, si elle n'a aucune importance sur le plan de l'établissement de la faute, peut en avoir une sur le plan de l'évaluation du préjudice. La jurisprudence est ainsi plus sévère lorsque l'auteur a réitéré ses propos pendant l'instance judiciaire ou s'est servi de la diffamation pour tenter de ruiner le demandeur ou de bloquer ses aspirations politiques. L'ampleur de la diffusion de la diffamation est également conséquente. Une publicité large doit logiquement motiver un octroi plus généreux que celle restreinte à un petit cercle, sauf si le cercle s'avère bien ciblé. De même, l'ampleur des dommages peut varier en fonction du milieu dans lequel la diffamation s'est produite. Sont aussi à considérer : la condition des parties, la portée qu'a eue l'acte sur la victime et sur son entourage, la répétition des propos diffamatoires par leurs auteurs, la récidive par leurs auteurs, la durée de l'atteinte, la permanence ou le caractère éphémère des effets sont aussi à considérer. Des facteurs liés à la personne de la victime peuvent également entraîner une variation du montant octroyé à titre de dommages, notamment s'il s'agit d'une personne physique ou d'une personne morale, cette dernière devant recevoir une indemnité moindre, sa notoriété, la fonction qu'elle occupe et l'importance de l'intégrité professionnelle dans l'exercice de cette fonction, sa réputation préalable. Certaines décisions ont même invoqué la conduite de la victime pour justifier la réduction du quantum des dommages. À l'opposé, un auteur souligne que les tribunaux ont maintenant aussi tendance à prendre en considération l'identité des défendeurs. Finalement, des excuses ou une rétractation, même lorsque la situation n'est pas régie par la Loi sur la presse, peuvent constituer un élément mitigeant les dommages, alors que l'absence de telles excuses constitue un facteur aggravant.[26]

[Emphasis added]

[32]        The Court has considered the following factors in the assessment of moral damages.

[33]        The Court considers the nature and seriousness of the defamatory statements. Especially in today’s social climate, and actually at all times, unfounded allegations of sexual abuse, are particularly heinous. They can have a devastating and long-term effect on one’s life and career.

[34]        The Court considers the nature of Mr Ayotte’s profession, and the motivation of Ms Gubenschek. Mr Ayotte’s profession includes coaching women to become professional athletes. It does not take a leap of logic to conclude that allegations of “sexually abuse”, allegedly confirmed by 29 women (albeit unfounded), could have a devastating effect on his business. The nature of her comments clearly demonstrates that her intent is to damage Mr Ayotte’s career.  

[35]         The scope of the publication is also a significant factor. The evidence reveals that the videos and comments were exposed for 72 hours to approximately 65,000 followers of the Defendants. In addition to the direct exposure to the Defendant’s followers, it is impossible to determine how often the videos were downloaded by third parties and thereafter transferred to others.  Ms Chiaramonte posted that she had 500 replies to her videos.[20]  Mr Ayotte had difficulty sleeping. He was anxious. He describes the situation as a “time bomb”. He spent the next several months answering questions about the allegations and doing damage control. He states that the Montreal fitness community is small and rumours travel fast. When he attended the competition in October, 2018 he felt ostracized humiliated and embarrassed. The evidence reveals that several potential clients made enquiries as to the veracity of the allegations and expressed fear and reluctance to work with him.[21] Rumours continued to circulate as of December 2018. Mr Ayotte states that a shadow of guilt continues to follow him.

In Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto, the Supreme Court addressed the difficulty of recovering from false allegations of impropriety:[22]

“”[…] A defamatory statement can seep into the crevices of the subconscious and lurked there ever ready to spring forth and spread its cancerous evil. The unfortunate impression left by a libel may last a lifetime. Seldom does the defamed person have the opportunity of replying and correcting the record in a manner that will truly remedy the situation.”

[36]        The Court also takes into consideration the motive for the statements. Ms Gubenschek was motivated by jealousy of the success of Mr Ayotte’s athlete, and wanted to harm his career. In view of the foregoing, the Court concludes that Mr Ayotte is entitled to moral damages of $15,000.  

[37]        Mr Ayotte’s claim $ 25,000 for punitive damages. The Court is guided by article 1621 of the Civil Code of Québec which reads as follows:[23]

1621. Lorsque la loi prévoit l’attribution de dommages-intérêts punitifs, ceux-ci ne peuvent excéder, en valeur, ce qui est suffisant pour assurer leur fonction préventive.

Ils s’apprécient en tenant compte de toutes les circonstances appropriées, notamment de la gravité de la faute du débiteur, de sa situation patrimoniale ou de l’étendue de la réparation à laquelle il est déjà tenu envers le créancier, ainsi que, le cas échéant, du fait que la prise en charge du paiement réparateur est, en tout ou en partie, assumée par un tiers.

[38]        The Court is also guided by articles 4 and 49 Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms which reads as follows:[24]

4. Every person has a right to the safeguard of his dignity, honour and reputation.

49. Any unlawful interference with any right or freedom recognized by this Charter entitles the victim to obtain the cessation of such interference and compensation for the moral or material prejudice resulting therefrom.

In case of unlawful and intentional interference, the tribunal may, in addition, condemn the person guilty of it to punitive damages.

[39]        The Supreme Court of Canada has defined what conduct can be seen as being intentional: Québec (Public Curator) v. Syndicat national des employés de l’hôpital St-Ferdinand.[25]

116. Pour conclure à l’existence d’une atteinte illicite, il doit être démontré qu’un droit protégé par la Charte a été violé et que cette violation résulte d’un comportement fautif.  Un comportement sera qualifié de fautif si, ce faisant, son auteur transgresse une norme de conduite jugée raisonnable dans les circonstances selon le droit commun ou, comme c’est le cas pour certains droits protégés, une norme dictée par la Charte elle-même:  Roy, Les dommages exemplaires en droit québécois: instrument de revalorisation de la responsabilité civileop. cit., aux pp. 350 à 358.  L’existence d’une atteinte illicite établie, la victime peut, selon les termes du premier alinéa de l’art. 49 de la Charte, «obtenir [. . .] la réparation du préjudice moral ou matériel qui en résulte».  Que ce soit en vertu du droit civil ou de la Charte, le préjudice et le lien de causalité, notions distinctes de la faute et de l’atteinte illicite, concernent les conséquences réelles de la conduite de l’acteur fautif ou de l’auteur de l’atteinte illicite, conséquences dont l’évaluation est destinée à circonscrire l’étendue du droit à la réparation de la victime.

117. Contrairement aux dommages compensatoires, l’octroi de dommages exemplaires prévu au deuxième alinéa de l’art. 49 de la Charte ne dépend pas de la mesure du préjudice résultant de l’atteinte illicite, mais du caractère intentionnel de cette atteinte.  Or, une atteinte illicite étant, comme je l’ai déjà mentionné, le résultat d’un comportement fautif qui viole un droit protégé par la Charte, c’est donc le résultat de ce comportement qui doit être intentionnel.  En d’autres termes, pour qu’une atteinte illicite soit qualifiée d’«intentionnelle», l'auteur de cette atteinte doit avoir voulu les conséquences que son comportement fautif produira.

[Emphasis added]

[40]        The Court is satisfied that Mr Ayotte has adequately met the burden to establish an unlawful and intentional act by Ms Gubenschek to warrant an award of punitive damages. In today’s social climate, she was aware or ought to have been aware as to the potential impact of her postings. Allegations of sexual impropriety when unfounded may be ruinous to one’s reputation and career. A review of Ms Gubenschek’s videos and comments amply demonstrates her intent to cause irreparable harm to Mr Ayotte.

[41]        The Court must enlighten Ms Gubenschek and others of the dangers of posting defamatory comments on social media and the serious consequences of such conduct. The Court shall order Ms Gubenschek to pay punitive damages of $10,000. In addition to the foregoing, the Court shall order her to retract her statements by way of a publication on her Instagram account to remain published for a period of no less than 10 days.

WHEREFORE, THE COURT:

[42]        GRANTS,  in part, Mr Ayotte’s Demand;

[43]        CONDEMNS the Defendant Ms Gubenschek to pay to Mr Ayotte moral damages of $15,000 together with interest and special indemnity;

[44]        CONDEMNS the Defendant Ms Gubenschek to pay to Mr Ayotte punitive damages of $10,000 together with interest and special indemnity;

[45]        ORDERS the Defendant Ms Gubenschek to publish, within 15 days of this judgment the following message on her Instagram account:

“I acknowledge that the statements I made about James Ayotte in the videos posted on my Instagram account in September 2018 are false. I apologize to James Ayotte for violating his right to dignity, his honour and reputation. To my personal knowledge, he has never verbally, physically and or sexually abused anyone. Moreover, to the best of my knowledge he is a devoted personal trainer who has never paid his athletes to compete or paid bribes to his athletes or any other person “

[46]        ORDERS that said message remain posted on her Instagram account for a period of no less than 10 days;

[47]        THE WHOLE WITH COSTS.

 

 

 

_____________________________________

honourable karen kear jodoin j.S.C.

 

Me Ugo Brisson and Me Marie L’Allier

LAMARRE LINTEAU & MONTCALM

Attorneys for Plaintiff

 

Ms Nadia Chiaramonte and Ms Jessica Gubenschek

For themselves

 

 

Hearing date:

January 29, 2019

 



[1]   Code of Civil procedure, 2014, c. 1, a. 116.

116. Service or notification by bailiff is made by delivering the document to the addressee personally or, if this cannot be done, by leaving it at the addressee’s domicile or residence with a person who appears to be capable of receiving it. If the document cannot be so delivered, it must be left at an appropriate place in a sealed envelope or in any other form that protects its confidentiality.

If the document is being served, the bailiff signs and stamps the document and records the date and time on it.

If the addressee refuses to accept the document, the bailiff records the refusal on the document, which is deemed to have been served or notified personally at the time of the refusal. The bailiff must leave the document on the premises by any appropriate means.

 

[2]     P-1.

[3]     R-3.

[4]     R-6.

[5]     R-7, R-8, R-9.

[6]     R-11, R-12.

[7]     R-13.

[8]     R-15.

[9]     R-16.

[10]    R-11.

[11]    R-18.

[12]    R-19.

[13]    R-21.

[14] Prud'homme v. Prud'homme, [2002] 4 SCR 663, 2002 SCC 85 (CanLII).

[15] J.-L. BAUDOUIN et P. DESLAURIERS, La responsabilité civile, 7e éd., Édition Yvon Blais, 2007, par. 1 293.

[16] R-1.

[17] R-23.

[18] Bonneau c. RNC Média inc., 2017 QCCA 11 (CanLII).

[19] Idem; J.-L. Baudouin, P. Deslauriers et B. Moore, supra, note 6, p. 600-609, paragr. 1-611.

[20] R-20.

[21] R-24.

[22] [1995] 2 SCR 1130, 1995 CanLII 59 (SCC).

[23] 1991, c. 64, a. 1621.

[24] 1975, c. 6, articles 4 and 49.

[25] [1996] 3 SCR 211, 1996 CanLII 172 (SCC).

AVIS :
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