In the recent decision Biondi c. Syndicat des cols bleus regroupés de Montréal (SCFP-301), the Superior Court of Quebec (Court) ordered the Syndicat des cols bleus regroupés de Montréal (Union) to pay C$2-million in punitive damages to the plaintiff class. Although Quebec courts can award punitive damages when expressly provided for in a statute, this remains an exceptional measure and courts are reluctant to award significant amounts under this head of damages. That being said, class actions often lead to claims for punitive damages, the amount of which can be significant given the junction of all class members’ claims in a single proceeding.
This decision is a chapter in the judicial saga resulting from the delay from the City of Montréal (City) to de-ice sidewalks of downtown Montréal during the illegal strike of the members of the Union in the winter of 2004. The class action joined the claims of victims who fell on icy sidewalks in the City during the illegal strike.
In 2010, the Court allowed the action and ordered the City and the Union to compensate the victims for the damages they suffered. In addition, it ordered the Union to pay the plaintiff class a sum of C$2-million in punitive damages. In 2013, the Court of Appeal of Quebec (Court of Appeal) confirmed the judgment as to the liability of the City and the Union, but overturned the order for punitive damages to enable their re-evaluation when the amount of compensatory damages is known.
When the amount of the individual claims was determined, the plaintiff class returned to the Court to seek an order that the Union pay C$2.5-million in punitive damages. The plaintiff class contended that the amount should be increased from the 2010 decision because the amount obtained in compensatory damages turned out to be lower than expected and the subsequent actions of the Union showed that the previous award did not have the desired dissuasive effect.
REASONS FOR JUDGEMENT
The Court once again confirmed that the Union must pay C$2-million in punitive damages, concluding that the assessment made previously was appropriate. Indeed, the order for punitive damages was made under sections 1 and 49 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (Charter) given the breach of the victims’ right to security and inviolability of their person. The Court applied the evaluation criteria for punitive damages set out by the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC), in Cinar Corporation c. Robinson, in the context of an action for copyright infringement. The Court considered the following elements in its analysis:
- The gravity of the fault
- The importance of the damages caused by it
- The Union’s capacity to pay
- The fact that the amount of compensatory damages turned out to be lower than expected at the time of the first judgment in 2010
- The lack of apology from the Union
Following the example of the Court of Appeal in Brault & Martineau inc. c. Riendeau and of the SCC in de Montigny v. Brossard (Succession), the Court confirmed that punitive damages can be awarded in Quebec even in the absence of an award for compensatory damages.
This decision illustrates the scale that punitive damages can reach in the context of class actions. It demonstrates that courts will not hesitate to grant substantial punitive damages, where otherwise appropriate, to sanction serious and intentional violations of a right protected by the Charter, or in cases of an intentional violation of another law providing for the award of punitive damages, such as the Consumer Protection Act. Here, the Court concluded that the behavior of the Union was “conduct that violates the basic rules of life in society” and that its recklessness was “serious, deliberate and antisocial”, which justified the substantial amount of punitive damages. Class actions are changing the landscape of amounts awarded as punitive damages in Quebec.