Ottawa taxi company in tough in Uber lawsuit battle: lawyer

An Ottawa taxi company that filed a lawsuit against the city over the way it handled the arrival of ride-hailing service Uber is in for a tough fight, according to a legal expert.

By Jacob Serebrin

“I don’t think there’s ever been a successful case just like this – which is not to say there couldn’t be, but I don’t think there’s been one yet,” said Bruce Feldthusen, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

Metro Taxi Ltd., which does business as Capital Taxi, and its co-owner Marc Andre Way filed a lawsuit against the City of Ottawa last week, seeking $215 million in damages.

They claim that the city unlawfully failed to enforce its own taxi bylaw by letting Uber operate in the city and that the new taxi bylaw is beyond the city’s authority.

A key issue for the taxi company is its contention that taxi plates – the supply of which has been controlled by the city – will lose their value.

Mr. Way and his family are the largest plate owners in Ottawa. A list released last summer by the city shows that they own 87 taxi plates. Mr. Way is also chief operating officer of the city’s main taxi dispatcher, Coventry Connections.

But the lawsuit will face some tough hurdles, lawyers say.

“I think the general rule would be that you cannot sue a municipality for failure to enforce its bylaw,” Mr. Feldthusen said.

However, there are some exceptions to that – usually to do with public safety, he said. But even those are controversial.

“I don’t think the courts like to get into this,” Mr. Feldthusen said. “Once they’re telling municipalities how to enforce their bylaws and when, they’re really crossing the line to governing and, in fairness to the courts, the courts don’t really want to do that and they really shouldn’t.”

He said government policy decisions also enjoy immunity in negligence law, but there is some debate about just what that entails.

“Now, what’s a policy decision and what isn’t makes lawyers a good living,” said Mr. Feldthusen. “Is it a policy decision to let Uber enter the market gradually while they draft the new bylaw? Or was that just operational action on their part?”  

The plaintiffs in the case are seeking to have it certified as a class action. That will be the first hurdle, Mr. Feldthusen said.

“First of all, they’re going to have to demonstrate that their pleading constitutes a legal wrong,” he explained.

That means the plaintiffs will have to prove that, hypothetically, if everything they say is true and they can prove that it is, the city has wronged them in way that the courts can address.

“The city is going to say, ‘If everything in your statement of claim is true, the law is still not going to give you a remedy,’” Mr. Feldthusen said. “I think that’s a big hurdle here.”

If that goes ahead, certifying the lawsuit as a class action should be a relatively simple matter, because all the potential plaintiffs will have had a similar experience.

Mr. Feldthusen also said the plaintiffs are unlikely to receive the $215 million in damages they’re claiming.

“That would be in a perfect world where the municipality was held responsible for completely wiping out the value of every plate, but there’s no way they’re going to get that. Even if they win anything, they’re not going to get that,” he said. “At some point, the municipality is allowed to change its law.”

The case is before the courts and no rulings have yet been made.

“There’s a very good law firm, very good lawyers, that are working on this and presuming they’re not doing it for the fun of it, so I wouldn’t discount it entirely,” Mr. Feldthusen said.