Susan Vella

Susan Vella

Senior Litigation Counsel and Practice Group Leader of the Sexual and Institutional Abuse and Aboriginal Rights Groups
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
416-363-7627 (Direct Line)
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Team Members:

Jennifer Lord - Legal Assistant, ext. 248, [email protected]

Michael Wilchesky – Associate, ext. 225, [email protected]

Career Highlights:

Susan Vella is recognized as one of Canada's foremost practitioners in the areas of civil sexual assault, institutional abuse, civil litigation and multi-victim lawsuits. In the September 2003 issue of L'ExpertTM magazine and in the National Post, Financial Post section that same year, Susan Vella was named as "one of the 15 top Canadian women lawyers to watch". In 2008, Susan received The Advocates' Society Award of Justice, which honours advocates who exemplify the finest traditions of advocacy in representing members in society whose cause may be politically or socially unpopular or against the mainstream.

On May 28th, 2009, Ms. Vella was awarded the Law Society Medal. The Law Society Medal is presented to Ontario lawyers who represent the highest level of achievement and commitment to serving society and the profession. Upon receiving this prestigious award, Ms. Vella was interviewed by Law Times in relation to her work in the area of civil sexual assault. Click here to view that interview.

Representing victims of sexual and physical assault, mental cruelty, and institutional abuse, her practice was the first of its kind on "Bay Street." Susan Vella has represented individuals and groups of victims for over 30 years, and has achieved many landmark decisions and results for persons whose claims were at one time not recognized as legitimate and worthy of compensation. She represented approximately 200 women who, as girls, were sent to the Grandview Training School For Girls. With her clients, Susan negotiated a precedent setting "healing package" which included an apology from the Government of Ontario, various forms of compensation, and "in kind" benefits. This settlement package has been the subject of much academic, legal and public media commentary because of its precedent setting and multifaceted nature.

Susan Vella had the privilege of representing the first victim to come forward in the Maple Leaf Gardens abuse scandal, Martin Kruze, in the civil litigation context. She assisted Martin Kruze in bringing the Maple Leaf Garden scandal to the attention of Maple Leaf Gardens, the public, and the justice system [see selected excerpt from Globe and Mail article entitled "Scandal Slams Gardens Into the Boards" dated February 22nd, 1997].

As well, Susan Vella was one of the first lawyers to assist First Nations' survivors of clergy sexual abuse, including her landmark settlement on behalf of individuals who were abused by a priest at the Cape Croker reserve, and has represented First Nations survivors who were sexually abused by Ralph Rowe - a former Anglican minister, priest pilot and Boy Scouts Silver Acorn honouree who travelled to various reserve territories in north-western Ontario. In addition, Susan Vella represents survivors of the Indian Residential Schools system both before the courts and in the current Federal Government Indian Residential School settlement process.

In Susan Vella's first reported civil sexual assault decision, C.(P) v C.(R.) (1994), 114 DLR (4th) 151, she successfully obtained the first judicial ruling in a civil sexual assault context, in which the since debunked theory of "false memory syndrome" was ruled to be lacking in scientific basis and therefore not available as a defence in these cases. [see article on False Memory Syndrome CBA - January-February 1994, Vol. 3, No. 1].

Susan Vella had the further privilege of representing the Wunnumin Lake First Nation at the Supreme Court of Canada in Bazley v Curry, [1999] 2 SCR 534. Ms. Vella successfully advanced the proposition that the established common law concept of "vicarious liability", under the test known as the Salmond 'scope of employment', could be applied to render institutional, corporate and government employers liable for the harms caused by their employees' illicit sexual misconduct towards children and others vulnerable to or dependent upon those employees. This theory has subsequently been successfully applied by Ms. Vella and others to obtain compensation from religious organizations including the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, governments (such as in the residential school, training school and cadet cases), school boards, hospitals, and other employers who prior to this leading Supreme Court of Canada decision, were thought to be immune from responsibility unless the employer had actual knowledge of the abuse while it was ongoing and failed to intervene.

Susan Vella also represented Nishnawbe Aski Nation (Treaty 9 Aboriginal organization representing 49 First Nation communities) at the Supreme Court of Canada in a trilogy of sexual abuse cases.

In 2015, Ms. Vella's team obtained an important decision in relation to the alleged transmission of the herpes simplex virus, type 2 ("HSV-2"), which affirmed the existence of fiduciary duties owed between spouses, D.V. v. Leo, 2014 ONSC 5227. In 2015, Ms. Vella obtained an important appellate decision (E.A. et al. v. G.W.H., 2015 ONSC 5623, leave to appeal refused by 2016 ONSC 39 (Div. Ct.)) allowing 2 sisters who alleged they were sexually abused by their common uncle (but at different times, and not in each other’s presence) to proceed with their claims in a single action. The Court agreed that by proceeding in this manner, the claims will be litigated as efficiently as possible, and the plaintiffs (and other witnesses) will be shielded from the pain and stress of unnecessary repetitions of testimony. Recently, Ms. Vella was interviewed and quoted by The Lawyers Weekly, "One sentence undoes sex assault trial", concerning the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision to set aside a jury conviction and order a new trial in relation to an alleged sexual assault in R. v. C.K.D., [2016] ONCA 66, on the basis that the trial judge erred in instructing the jury on assessing the credibility of a 17-year-old witness who testified she had been assaulted by her stepbrother when she was 12. Ms. Vella was also interviewed and quoted by Chatelaine, "Bill Cosby is suing his Canadian accuser. Can Ghomeshi sue his?", concerning the potential effects of Jian Gomeshi’s criminal trial on any future civil action(s) commenced by Jian Gomeshi and/or the complainants in the criminal proceedings.

Susan Vella is also a recognized author and speaker and has many presentations, articles, and other writings to her credit, including her co-authored publication, Civil Liability for Sexual Abuse and Violence in Canada (Toronto: Butterworths, 2000) which has been cited by the Court of Appeal for Ontario with approval, and has been identified as a "must have" text for any lawyer entering into this area of law. [see Selected Presentations and Consultations]

Ms. Vella also represents First Nations and Aboriginal peoples in their quest for justice against governments, corporations and other institutions for historical and contemporary wrongs. She was winning counsel on behalf of Slate Falls First Nation in resisting a comprehensive attack by the federal government and Ontario Power Generation to stop this First Nation's flooding claim without the right to go to trial. [see Reasons for Judgment of Justice Horkins released on September 21, 2004]. Ms. Vella recently completed the year-long trial in this matter which featured the calling of elders, other members of the First Nation community and experts, and was conducted as an electronic (paperless) trial.

Ms. Vella contributed a chapter, as co-author, to a fundamental Aboriginal Law handbook entitled Aboriginal Rights Litigation (eds. Magnet and Dorey) (Toronto: Butterworths, 2003).

In addition, Ms. Vella was associate commission counsel to the Ipperwash Inquiry which examined the events surrounding the shooting death of First Nations member, Dudley George, by an OPP officer during an occupation at Ipperwash Provincial Park. For more information on the Ipperwash Inquiry, go to Ms. Vella was interviewed with respect to her role as Commission Counsel by the Canadian Bar Association in Inquiring Minds, to review the article click here.

Ms. Vella also successfully represented the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Windigo First Nations Council in a precedent setting motion at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. On August 16, 2011, Chief Justice Winkler granted NAN and Windigo's request, directing that Stirland Lake (also known as Wahbon Bay Academy) and Cristal Lake residential high schools be added to the list of Indian Residential Schools, thereby entitling former students to apply for the Common Experience Payment (CEP) and the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) relating to their attendance at these schools. This was the first decision in Canada in which a court added a residential school to the list over Canada's objection and, as such, represented an important precedent for Canada's First Nations. Click here to review Chief Justice Winkler's Reasons for Decision.

Susan Vella has appeared as lead counsel at all levels of court in civil sexual abuse and other matters, including the Supreme Court of Canada, the Court of Appeal for Ontario, and the Superior Court of Justice (Divisional Court). She has conducted several civil sexual assault trials at the Superior Court of Justice (and the former Ontario Court of Justice - General Division) against both institutions and individual perpetrators. See for example: Bazley v. Curry, [1999] 2 S.C.R. 534; Jacobi v. Griffiths, [1999] 2 S.C.R. 570; K.L.B. v. British Columbia, [2003] 2 S.C.R. 403; M.B. v. British Columbia, [2003] 2 S.C.R. 477; E.D.G. v. Hammer, [2003] 2 S.C.R. 459; P.D. v Allen, [2004] O.J. No. 3042; Polgrain Estate v. Toronto East General Hospital (2008), 293 D.L.R. (4th) 266 (C.A.); Evans v. Sproule, [2008] O.J. No. 4518. Ms. Vella has represented individuals against various religious institutions, school boards, children's aid agencies, the federal and provincial governments, police forces, health care facilities and other defendants.

Ms. Vella is a past president of the National Association of Women and the Law, was a legal consultant to the Canada Law Commission regarding its report, "Restoring Dignity: Responding to Child Abuse in Canadian Institutions", is a member of the Advocates Society, the Ontario Bar Association and Canadian Bar Associations, and a past Vice Chair of the Commercial Registrations Appeal Tribunal. Ms. Vella also acted as counsel to The Minister's Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Abuse of Patients and the Regulated Health Professions Act, is a past member of the Civil Rules Committee, and is a board member of the VIVA! Youth Singers of Ontario.

Ms. Vella is often sought by the media for her perspective and comments on challenging sexual abuse and misconduct matters. Ms. Vella has been interviewed and quoted by several national publications, including the CBC, "Her voice is heard': Why some accusers pursue civil rather than criminal justice in harassment cases", The Globe and Mail, 'Catholic priest faces sentencing for sexual abuse', The National Post, "Lawsuit over sex abuse insurance could have consequences for future cases, experts say" and Ontario and Nova Scotia loosening rules on sex abuse cases, making it easier for victims to sue their attackers and Maclean's, 'Lawsuits for mental pain becoming more common', Russell Williams offers a defence' and 'What a season of sexual harassment suits says about the modern office'. Ms. Vella has also been interviewed and quoted by the Toronto Star, 'Tougher action urged to probe doctors guilty of sex abuse' and '30 years later, $215,000 for officer's sex assault', the Law Times,'Firm ordered to pay $1.5 million in fees to charity','Lawyers call for higher damages in civil sexual assault cases' and '$125K libel award against sex abuse complainants sends chill, lawyers warn', and by the hosts of Square Off (CHCH), regarding the potentially chilling effects of the Court's decision Vanderkooy v. Vanderkooy et al., 2013 ONSC 4796, on sexual abuse victims. Recently, Ms. Vella was interviewed and quoted by The Lawyers Weekly, 'One sentence undoes sex assault trial', concerning the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision to set aside a jury conviction and order a new trial in relation to an alleged sexual assault in R. v. C.K.D., [2016] ONCA 66, on the basis that the trial judge erred in instructing the jury on assessing the credibility of a 17-year-old witness who testified she had been assaulted by her stepbrother when she was 12. Ms. Vella was also interviewed and quoted by Chatelaine, 'Bill Cosby is suing his Canadian accuser. Can Ghomeshi sue his?', concerning the potential effects of Jian Gomeshi’s criminal trial on any future civil action(s) commenced by Jian Gomeshi and/or the complainants in the criminal proceedings.

Ms. Vella has been selected by her peers to be on the Best Lawyers' listing in the practice areas of personal injury litigation and Aboriginal Law in specific recognition of her work representing survivors of sexual and institutional abuse and First Nations communities.

Areas of Practice

  • Civil Sexual and Institutional Abuse and Misconduct Claims
  • Aboriginal Rights Litigation and First Nations' Dispute Resolution
  • Commercial Litigation
  • Public Interest Litigation

Bar Admissions

  • Law Society of Upper Canada, 1988


  • Osgoode Hall Law School, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
    • LL.B. - 1986
    • Honours: Glen Wakayabashi Award for Academic Achievement, Cmty. Involvement/Leadership
  • St. Michael's College, University of Toronto
    • B.A.
    • Honours: With Distinction
    • Major: English

Selected Publications

  • Texts
    • Co-Author, Civil Liability for Sexual Abuse and Violence in Canada, (Butterworths, December 2000).
  • Chapters
    • Author, Chapter, "The Undervaluation of Non-Pecuniary and Income Based Damage Awards in Sexual Abuse Cases", in The Law Society of Upper Canada Special Lectures: 2008 (Irwin Law Inc., 2009)
    • Co-Author, Chapter "Pathways to Justice for Residential School Claimants: Is the Civil Justice System Working?" in Aboriginal Rights Litigation (Eds.: Magnet and Dorey) (Butterworths, 2003).
    • Author, Chapter, "Credibility on Trial: Recovered Traumatic Memory Evidence in Sexual Assault Cases", in Fragment by Fragment, (Gynergy Publication, April, 1999).
  • Articles
    • Co-Author, "Defence Strategies in Sexual Assault Claims: What was Old is New Again" in The Litigator (OTLA, September 2015).
    • Author, "Recovered Traumatic Memories in Historical Childhood Sexual Abuse Cases: Credibility on Trial", University of British Columbia Law Journal, September, 1998.
    • Author, Case Comment: M.(A.) v. Ryan (Supreme Court of Canada), Jurisfemme, March, 1997.
    • Author, "Property and General Liability Insurance Coverage for Vicarious Liability in Sexual Misconduct Cases", Legal Focus, January, 1997.
    • Author, "Insurance Coverage in Sexual Misconduct Claims based on Occupiers' Liability", Legal Focus, December, 1996.
    • Author, "Grandview Was Not a Children's Prison", Law Times, August, 1996.
    • Co-Author, "Costs Ordered Against Tenant Where Relocation Clause Lawful", Legal Alert, January, 1994.
    • Author, "Vesting Mothers With Power They Do Not Have: The Non-Offending Parent in Civil Sexual Assault Cases", Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1994.
    • Author, "False Memory Syndrome: The Latest Defence to Childhood Sexual Abuse Claims", Jurisfemme, Vol. 12, No. 4, January, 1992.
    • Co-Author with K.N. Feldman, "The Evolution of Forum Conveniens: Its Application to Stays of Proceedings and Service Ex Juris" (1988-89), 10 Adv. Q. 161.

Selected Presentations and Consultations

  • Speaker, 19th Annual Employment Law Summit – Sexual Harassment, "Forum Shopping in the Sexual Harassment and Assault Cases", Osgoode Professional Development, October 30, 2018.
  • Panelist, The Winkler Institute for Dispute Resolution and the International Academy of Mediators, The Evolution of Mediation – Where Are We Going? "Fitting The Forum To The Fight", Osgoode Professional Development, April 23, 2018.
  • Speaker, "The Expert Psychologist", American Psychological Association, August, 2015
  • Speaker, "The Expert Psychologist", Ontario Psychological Association, February, 2015
  • Speaker to Honorable Justice Bastenache on his retirement from the Supreme Court of Toronto Canada
  • Co-Chair, "Vicarious Liability for Sexual Assault/Abuse", Canadian Institute National Symposium, Toronto, September 22, 1999 - September 23, 1999
  • Panelist, Debate with Gwen Landholt (National Vice President of REAL Women) Concerning the Judge McClung (Alberta Court of Appeal) Complaints to the Canadian Judicial Council, On TV, March, 1999
  • Speaker, Mediation and A.D.R.: Are Women's Legal Interests Being Sacrificed or Enhanced When Their Disputes Are Taken Out of the Courtroom?, National Association of Women and the Law, November, 1998
  • Speaker, Victims Counseling Records, Lormar Education Services, April, 1998
  • Speaker, Civil Sexual Assault, Canadian Bar Association, Ontario Feminist Legal Analysis Section, March, 1998
  • Speaker, Enforceability of Relocation Clauses in Commercial Leases, ICSC Law Conference, March, 1998
  • Speaker, When Should or Could Vicarious Liability be Extended in Sexual Abuse Cases, Advocate Society Fall Conference, Paradise Island, Bahamas, Nov. 1997
  • Speaker, Sexual Abuse Claims on Behalf of First Nations Survivors, October, 1997, National Association of Women and the Law Conference, Halifax, NS
  • Speaker, Records Disclosure and Privilege, Advocates' Society, February, 1997
  • Speaker, The Healing Package Developed Around the Grandview Survivors Focus, International Women's Health Conference, June, 1996
  • Speaker, Counseling and the Law, Kin Family Association, January, 1996
  • Speaker, False Memory Syndrome, YMCA, Kingston, January, 1996
  • Speaker, Recovered Traumatic Memory Syndrome, January, 1996
  • Speaker, Beyond the Controversy: Recovering Memories of Early Life Trauma: Clinical/Legal/Research Implications, Trent University, 1996
  • Speaker, Recovered Traumatic Memory, Kingston Psychiatric Hospital Conference, December, 1995
  • Co-Chair, False Memory Syndrome, Ontario Institute for Studies and Education Conference, November, 1995
  • Speaker, Sexual Misconduct, Law Society of Upper Canada, November, 1995
  • Speaker, Privilege, Disclosure and Confidentiality and Note Taking and Keeping in the Context of False Memory Syndrome, Canadian University Assoc of Counsellors, Queen's University, June 95
  • Speaker, Confidentiality and Disclosure Issues, Memorial Hospital in Sault Ste. Marie, May, 1995
  • Speaker, Litigation Issues in Civil Sexual Assault Matters, Ontario Trial Lawyers Association, May, 1995
  • Speaker, Recovered Memory for the False Memory Syndrome, Seminar, London, Ontario, April 1995
  • Panelist, False Memory Syndrome, Telemedicine Video Conference, April, 1995
  • Panelist, False Memory Syndrome, Faceoff, CBC TV, April, 1995
  • Speaker, Grandview A.D.K. Process and Recovered Traumatic Memory, Canadian Institute, April, 1995
  • Speaker, Institutional and Societal Accountability, and False Memory Syndrome, Canadian Institute on Sexual Assault Seminar, April, 1995
  • Speaker, Sexual Assault Claims Against Institutional Defendants, Ontario Trial Lawyers Association, 1995
  • Speaker, Disclosure and Privilege, Ontario Society of Psychotherapists Annual General Meeting, November, 1994
  • Co-Speaker, It's Never O.K.; Prosecuting Offenders: An Overview of the Canadian Legal Context, 3rd Annual Conference on Sexual Exploitation by Health Professionals, Psychotherapists and Clergy, October, 1994
  • Speaker, New Torts, Canadian Bar Association Annual Meeting, August, 1994
  • Speaker, Ritual Abuse, BRAVE Conference, May, 1994
  • Speaker, Litigation for Physically and Sexually Abused Women, Canadian Institute, April, 1994
  • Speaker, Feminist Perspectives on Law, Flavelle House, University of Toronto, February, 1994
  • Speaker, The Issue of Evidence in Incest Cases, University of Calgary, Faculty of Law, February, 1993
  • Speaker, Civil Sexual Assault, Canadian Bar Association of Alberta, February, 1993
  • Panelist, Institutional Liability in Civil Sexual Assault Cases, National Association of Women and the Law Biennial Conference, February, 1993
  • Speaker, The Professional Under Attack, Law Society of Upper Canada, 1993
  • Co-Chair, Sexual Assault: The Civil Remedy, Law Society of Upper Canada, Fall, 1993
  • Interview, The Rising Number of Civil Sexual Assault Lawsuits in Canada, St. John Globe and Mail, August, 1999
  • Interview, The Supreme Court of Canada's Recent Vicarious Liability (Sexual Abuse) Rulings Released in Bazley v. Curry and Jacobi v. Griffiths, CBC's The National, June, 1999
  • Quoted, Ruling on Child Abuse Makes Us All Accountable, The Toronto Star, June, 1999
  • Quoted, Badly Treated: Anguish of Patients Abused by Doctors, The Toronto Star, June, 1999
  • Interview, The College of Physicians and Surgeons, Paul Taylor, Editor-Health Affairs, The Globe and Mail, and Lisa Priest-Reporter, Investigations and Special Projects, The Toronto Star, March 1999
  • Civil Justice System vs. The Criminal Justice System, CBC, November 1998
  • Quoted, A Different Road to Justice, Lawyers' Weekly, July, 1998
  • Interview, Pursuing Justice in the Civil Litigation System For Survivors of Sexual Assault, Chatelaine, May, 1998
  • Interview, Criminal Lawyers Association Call For a Public Inquiry Into Convictions For Sexual Assault Based on Recovered Memory, CBC Newsworld's On Line, May 1998
  • Interview, Criminal Lawyers Association Call for a Public Inquiry Into Convictions for Sexual Assault Based on Recovered Memory, Southam & Ottawa Citizen, May 1998
  • Interview, Differences in Process and Objectives Between the Criminal and Civil Justice Systems, CBC, 1998
  • Interview, Employer Responsible For Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, Charles Adler, CFRB, June 1997
  • Interview, M(A) v. Ryan, Lawyers' Weekly, March, 1997
  • Quoted, Jail Should Mean Jail But Local Crown Won't Appeal Priest's 90-Day Sentence, Peterborough This Week, March, 1997
  • Quoted, Civil Liability - Personal Injury, Canadian Lawyer Magazine, March, 1997
  • Quoted, M(A) v. Ryan, Lawyers' Weekly, March, 1997
  • Interview, Supreme Court Cases of O'Connor and Beharriell Decision (on the Disclosure of Records of Third Parties on Sexual Assault Cases), Jane Hawtin Show, WTN (TV), January, 1996
  • Interview, Gender Equality for Professional Women in the Workplace, CBC Newsworld, TVO, Alberta Public Television Network Workworld, December, 1992

Honours and Awards

  • Law Society Medal
  • The Advocates' Society Award of Justice
  • Named as 'one of the 15 top Canadian women lawyers to watch' by L'Expert™ Magazine
  • Best Lawyers' Listing

Professional Associations and Memberships

  • Law Society of Upper Canada, Member
  • Canadian Bar Association, Member
  • National Association of Women and the Law, Former President
  • National Association of Women and the Law Charitable Trust, Former Trustee
  • Commercial Registrations Appeal Tribunal, Ontario, Former Vice Chair
  • Ontario Bar Association, Member
  • Ontario Trial Lawyers Association, Member
  • The Advocates’ Society, Member
  • Civil Rules Committee, Member