The recent jury decision in Higginson v. Babine Forest Products Ltd. is one that should cause employers to sit up and take notice, as it demonstrates the risks that an employer assumes when they choose to treat an employee unfairly and unreasonably.
In the Higginson case, an employee, Larry Higginson, had been employed by Babine Forest Products Ltd. (“Babine”) for about 34 years, at which point he was “let go” from his employment. The employer alleged that there was cause for the dismissal, however Mr. Higginson argued at trial that Babine had made up the cause for dismissal in order to avoid paying Mr. Higginson the great amount of severance he had built up after 34 years of service. He also argued that Babine had attempted to make his job miserable just before he was terminated in an effort to encourage him to quit.
In its decision, the jury sided with Mr. Higginson and awarded him over $800,000 in damages. Of that, $236,000 was for compensatory damages (compensation for his losses, including severance), and $573,000 in punitive damages (damages to deter and punish). This is the largest punitive damages award in an employment law case in Canada.
While this was a tremendous win for Mr. Higginson (pending any appeal), it should be noted that punitive damages in employment cases are definitely the exception rather than the rule. While a court must consider many factors in deciding whether or not to award punitive damages, they can be awarded against an employer where the employer’s conduct departs markedly from the “ordinary standards of decency—the exceptional case that that can be described as malicious, oppressive or high-handed and that offends the court’s sense of decency.”
If you believe that you are being treated unfairly by your employer and may have a case that warrants the awarding of punitive damages, please contact us today for a consultation.
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