Case In Point
Appellate Court Upholds Jury Award of $150,000 Punitive Damages Against Employer
Date: June 16, 2021
In a recent decision, Eynon v. Simplicity Air Ltd., the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld a punitive damages award of $150,000 against an employer for the actions of two of its supervisors after an employee’s workplace injury.
The appeal to the Court of Appeal was from a jury award of punitive damages. The respondent employee brought a civil claim against his employer for injuries he suffered in the workplace as a result of “horseplay” he had participated in while at work. The employee was injured after climbing a 14-foot-high chain hoist (after being challenged to do so by a coworker) and suffered injuries to his genital area. Because the employee was engaged in “horseplay” at the time of the accident, he was not entitled to WSIB benefits. He sued the employer for negligence, claiming damages and lost wages, among other things.
At a jury trial, the employee was awarded general damages of $75,000 for his injuries as well as lost wages of $9000, which were reduced by 75% for the employee’s own contributory negligence. The jury further assessed punitive damages against the employer in the amount of $150,000.
The relevant evidence to the jury’s assessment of punitive damages involved the actions of two of the employer’s supervisors after the incident occurred. The employee gave evidence that the supervisors had laughed at him after he was injured, refused to look at his injury and further refused to call him an ambulance. While a supervisor did ultimately transport the employee to a nearby hospital, the employee claimed that he was dropped off and not accompanied inside. The employee further alleged that one of the supervisors had counselled him to say that the injury had happened at home (rather than in the workplace). Both supervisors denied the employee’s version of events.
The jury cited the employer’s lack of proper safety training, as well as the employer’s role in allowing a workplace culture where employees failed to place adequate importance on safety practices, as a basis for the general damages. It did not provide an explanation for its assessment of punitive damages.
The employer appealed the punitive damages award. It argued before the Court of Appeal that punitive damages should not have been left with the jury. The Court held that the trial judge had properly directed the jury, that the jury was entitled to make such an assessment, and that there was sufficient evidence for the jury’s award of punitive damages (including facts such as the supervisor’s direction to the employee to claim that the accident had not occurred in the workplace).
The employer also argued that the trial judge had erred in his instruction to the jury regarding the assessment of punitive damages, further suggesting that the trial judge should have provided guidance on amount of punitive damages. The Court found that the trial judge “adequately equipped” the jury to assess the employer’s conduct and held that, in fact, it would have been improper for the trial judge to suggest a range for punitive damages to the jury.
Next, the employer argued that it should not be liable for the conduct of the two supervisors in question. In rejecting this argument, the Court held that there “was no question that the conduct of the supervisors was the conduct of their employer.” The Court also rejected the employer’s argument that the award was “irrational” and inordinately large, and further disagreed that the punitive damages award should be reduced on the basis of contributory negligence.
This decision serves as a reminder to employers that decision-makers will not hesitate to hold an employer accountable for the actions and behaviour of management or supervisory staff in health and safety matters. It also confirms that, to minimize the risk of liability of this nature, an employer should take proactive steps to ensure its respective workplace is not perceived to inadequately emphasize safety practices or allow a generally unsafe culture.
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