In a recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision, a jury award of $150,000 in punitive damages to an employee who was injured at the workplace was upheld, with the court finding that the basis for and the amount of the award were justified.
Employee Injured At Work
The employee agreed to a challenge by a colleague to climb a 14-foot-high chain hoist in the workplace, in what the employee claimed was “horseplay”.
However, as he descended, he caught the crotch of his pants on a hook near the bottom of the chain and another hook pierced his scrotum. He later underwent surgery.
When he subsequently filed a claim with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board relating to the injury, the Board determined that he was not entitled to benefits as it found that the accident did not take place in the course of his employment.
As a result, the employee filed a claim against the employer, alleging that the employer had failed to provide him with proper safety training and he had not been trained to operate the chain hoist, so he did not know climbing it was dangerous. Additionally, he submitted that there was no supervisor on the floor on the day of the accident. The employee also claimed that after the accident, he screamed in pain and asked for an ambulance. However, when a supervisor arrived, the employee claimed that he laughed at him and refused to call an ambulance. The employee also claimed that both the supervisor and a manager later told him to lie and say that the accident had occurred at the employee’s home. Finally, the employee claimed that when the supervisor finally agreed to drive him to the hospital, he simply dropped him at the entrance and did not accompany the employee inside.
In response, the employer claimed that the employee had received safety training, but that he had not been trained on the chain hoist because he was not authorized to use it. The employer also disputed the events following the accident relating to the supervisor and manager’s actions.
Jury Finds in Favour of Employee
At trial, the jury ultimately awarded the employee general damages in the amount of $75,000 and damages for lost wages at $9,000. However, the jury also found the amounts should be reduced by 75 percent for the employee’s contributory negligence in causing his injuries. As such, the general damages were reduced to $18,750 and the wage loss amount was set at $2,250.
Additionally, the jury assessed punitive damages against the employer in the amount of $150,000, without providing any indication of the basis for its award, though it did give a brief explanation of the employer’s role in causing or contributing to the employee’s injuries, stating:
“The [employer] demonstrated a serious lack of proper safety training, documentation, as well as creating a culture within the company whereby employees failed to place adequate importance on best safety practices.”
The employer appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal, arguing that the punitive damages award should be set aside or reduced on a variety of different grounds.
Court of Appeal Dismisses Employer’s Appeal
Ultimately, the Court of Appeal dismissed the employer’s arguments relating to the determination of punitive damages, noting in particular:
“There was sufficient evidence that a properly instructed jury, acting reasonably, could have awarded punitive damages. The supervisors’ instructions to an injured employee to falsely report that he was injured at home, without more, warranted an award of punitive damages. The jury could properly regard these instructions as misconduct offensive to ordinary standards of decent conduct expected of an employer and could be properly described as highly reprehensible.”
Further, the court held that the jury had properly held the employer liable for the conduct of its employees, explaining:
“There was no question that the conduct of the supervisors was the conduct of their employer… Moreover, the actions of [the supervisor and the manager] occurred within what the jury had determined was “a culture within the company whereby employees failed to place adequate importance on best safety practices”. Accordingly, we do not give effect to the argument that the award of punitive damages against the [employer] was unwarranted because the focus was on the misconduct of its supervisory personnel.”
Finally, the court rejected the employer’s argument that the amount of the punitive damages was irrational and inordinately large, stating:
“This is one of those exceptional cases in which the relationship between the punitive damages award and the general damages award is weak….The focus of the award of punitive damages was on the [employer]’s misconduct in the context of the surrounding circumstances, and not on the circumstances leading to the [employee]’s injury. This is however entirely proper. Punitive damages are awarded to sanction a defendant’s misconduct, and not to compensate a plaintiff.”
As a result, the court therefore dismissed the employer’s appeal.
If you have questions about workplace misconduct or other employment issues, contact the offices of Guelph Peter A. McSherry Employment Lawyer. We regularly advise employees on their rights in the workplace. Contact us online or by phone at 519-821-5465 to schedule a consultation.