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Insurance law is about the people: Vaughan

Toronto insurance lawyer Heather Vaughan’s instincts about the sort of law she wanted to practice and the kind of firm for which she wanted to work were finely tuned right out of law school.

Attracted to litigation, she articled with Benson Percival Brown LLP as a student and has been there ever since, joining the Toronto personal injury and insurance litigation firm upon her call to the bar in 2001. In 2007, she was made a partner.

“It’s a combination of the work and the people I work with,” Vaughan says of her enduring satisfaction with the firm.

While all of her cases are on behalf of insurance companies, she encounters all kinds of situations and people through them.

“Virtually everything is insured, so there’s just so much variety. You could be dealing with car accident liabilities one day and the next day it’s a nurse involved in a malpractice case,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com. “I meet all types of people. You learn so much about other people’s lives, people that you would never have come across in your everyday life.”

Along with motor vehicle liability, Vaughan’s defence practice includes claims against daycares, long-term care facilities and private schools as well as professionals such as teachers, physiotherapists, nurses, and psychotherapists. She also defends and prosecutes negligence in the construction industry.

While Vaughan doesn’t have any preferences, case-wise, “I like a new challenge,” she says. “I like getting a new type of case and trying to figure out what the standards are, what the breaches of those standards might be, what the defences are.”

Vaughan has recently worked on several cases involving long-term care facilities, “which is interesting because they deal with the various professionals who are working in those facilities with very vulnerable clients.”

She recalls another interesting recent case involving a private school that expelled a student because of the actions of the girl’s mother at the school.

“You’re dealing with a vulnerable person, a child, and with the school that’s trying to make the best decision, and legal issues regarding the contract that had been signed, as well as a duty of care to the student,” Vaughan says. 

While insurance law is ostensibly about liability and damages, it is always about people, she says.  

“There is a responsibility to be reasonable, and cognizant of what the people’s stories actually are, and what they’ve gone through — or not gone through — and whether that is compensable or not,” she says.

Vaughan’s first exposure to legal issues came when she was an undergrad at York University in environmental studies, a field that tends towards two paths: a science degree or work in policy and law. Vaughan gravitated naturally towards the latter, going on to Osgoode Hall Law School, and obtaining her LL.B. in 1999.

Initially she had designs on a career in criminal law, but realized her passion was for litigation, not necessarily defending alleged criminals. That said, Vaughan sees a link between insurance and criminal law.

“Every client deserves a vigorous, well-reasoned defence,” she says. “People think that because you’re dealing with insurance companies that they have these big, deep pockets, but really you’re acting for the named parties.”

At times that is the insurance company, but not always.

“We have to remember that the people who are being sued are part of this litigation, even though they might have some insurance coverage,” she says. “If you’re a nurse and you’re in the ER, you’re taking vitals and acting in the interest of your patient and you end up getting sued in a medical malpractice suit, that emotional.”

Along with courtroom work, Vaughan has become more active recently in administrative law, acting as tribunal counsel to the Registered Insurance Brokers of Ontario, which regulates the licensing, professional competence, ethical conduct, and financial obligations of its members.

Her administrative law practice also includes advocacy before tribunals such as the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, and the Human Rights Tribunal, as well as before coroner’s inquests.

“We forget that there’s this whole parallel justice system that runs alongside the court,” she says, including various boards, and quasi-judicial bodies, often put in place by professions. While not top-of-mind, these bodies are important elements of the justice system, she says.

For Vaughan, it’s a fascinating new avenue for exploring the area of law she knows and loves.

“I’m always looking to expand my knowledge and take on new things,” she says. “I’m really enjoying it.”

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