SCHOOL UNFAZED BY 10 LAWSUITS, COVERED FOR UP TO $20 MILLION

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By Adrian Morrow

When Hughes Chicoine flunked a first year photography course at Ryerson, he decided to sue the university.

It was the early 1980s and Chicoine, a 30-something professional photographer, appealed the grade. Ryerson offered him the chance to repeat the year, but he refused.

Demanding the school refund his tuition and student loans, Chicoine sued Ryerson, alleging that the course content wasn’t the same as promised in the course outline, that his prof was incompetent and that he wasn’t evaluated properly.

In 1985, a provincial judge ruled that legally, he could sue the school for giving him a bad education and he continued the case.

Much has changed since then.

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Last week, The Eyeopener uncovered a story about a volunteer actor currently suing the school for $1 million after allegedly getting whacked on the head by a lamp while performing in a student’s final project. Julia Haningsberg, Ryerson’s general counsel, hadn’t heard of the suit when the paper contacted her, but didn’t seem concerned: The university would simply hand it off to its insurer, as it does with any lawsuit.

In the past few years, Ryerson’s legal issues have ranged from construction issues to personal injury to car accident claims, dealing with more than 30 lawsuits in the past 10 years.

Currently, Ryerson is entangled in more than 10 lawsuits, most of them with construction companies. In one case, Ryerson is suing Aecon Construction Group Inc., the company that built the engineering building, for $102,000 as a result of a fire sprinkler that burst in the building shortly after it was completed.

Ryerson is alleging that Aecon and three of its subcontractors “(failed) to ensure that the fire suppression system had been appropriately installed and tested.”

In other suits, Ryerson is on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly relating to construction liens, suits and countersuits by former contractors who built the school buildings.

The amount of litigation Ryerson is involved in isn’t atypical when it comes to construction.

“It’s an area that’s fraught with litigation,” John Kulik, a lawyer who specializes in construction cases, said.

Typically, if a building owner is engaged in a suit with a general contractor, the subcontractors won’t get paid and in turn put liens against the owner, he said.

And it’s in everyone’s best interest to settle out of court — suits can bleed thousands of dollars worth of legal fees out of the people involved.

“Construction law is very expensive,” said Kulik.

Fortunately for the school, it’s covered for up to $20 million in liabilities through the Canadian Universities Reciprocal Insurance Exchange (CURIE), which insures Canadian universities and spreads legal costs around the nation’s 90 universities. This means if one school gets sued more than others, everyone’s premiums go up. Ryerson’s premium is currently $500,000 a year.

Most of the time, CURIE settles out of court.

Ryerson is covered for almost everything under CURIE, including property damage to liability and personal injury. The only significant thing not insured is the Ram in the Rye, because CURIE doesn’t insure bars.

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At the time of Hughes Chicoine’s case, CURIE didn’t exist and it’s likely that Ryerson’s insurance premiums weren’t as stable. In the end, it’s not clear what happened to Chicoine’s case.

The Eyeopener could not track any documents past 1985, when the provincial court ruled that his suit could proceed, but according to Greg Dickinson, a professor in the University of Western Ontario’s education faculty and author of a book on education lawsuits, Chicoine’s case did not appear before the court again, meaning that he likely settled out of court or dropped his suit.

The implications of the case were significant at the time, but as far as Dickinson knows, there haven’t been any attempts to do the same thing since.

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