Ryan Van Haren is a commercial pilot who accepted a Vancouver-based position as a Beech 1900 co-pilot for Northern Thunderbird Air (NTA), commencing in Spring 2007. In August 2007 he successfully applied for a position at NTA flying a Beechcraft 350 air ambulance, based in Prince George, British Columbia. Van Haren's application letter contained the following statement: "This is a letter of commitment for two years on the contract, should I be chosen." Van Haren was trained (at the expense of NTA) on the Beechcraft 350 and, after the training was complete, commenced work in Prince George.

In February 2008 Van Haren advised NTA's general manager that another airline wished to interview him, and that the other airline may request a reference. Apart from raising questions about Van Haren's long-term employment commitment at NTA, this comment also set the stage for a strained environment in the workplace between Van Haren and his superiors. Shortly after this incident, Van Haren was transferred by NTA back to Vancouver to fly another aircraft type.

Also in February 2008 NTA and Van Haren signed a pilot training bond, whereby NTA agreed to train him on the Beechcraft 350 and allow him to fly it once qualified. In exchange, Van Haren agreed to being indebted for the sum of C$10,000, with the debt being reduced by 1/24 for each month that he remained in the employment of NTA. A promissory note for C$10,000 was executed by Van Haren in favour of NTA in this regard. The pilot training bond was backdated to June 1 2007.

In considering the validity of the pilot training bond, it is important to note that:

  • it was signed after the Beechcraft 350 training was complete; and
  • by the time that the pilot training bond was signed, Van Haren had already been transferred to Vancouver and assigned another aircraft.

On May 1 2008 Van Haren resigned.

NTA commenced an action in the British Columbia Small Claims Court, claiming C$5,416.16 as the balance owing on the backdated pilot training bond. The trial judge found that the pilot training bond was not enforceable "due in part to the lack of consideration", given that at the time that it was signed, the training was already complete and Van Haren was no longer assigned to the Beechcraft 350. Accordingly, the judge held that Van Haren received nothing of value in exchange for his promise of payment when he signed the pilot training bond.

NTA appealed to the British Columbia Supreme Court.(1)

Justice Ballance did not accept NTA's argument that the pilot training bond was merely the written manifestation of the oral agreement that had been concluded when Van Haren accepted a position as co-pilot on the Beechcraft 350 in August 2007. Instead, she found that the terms of the agreement, as set out in the pilot training bond, were not contemplated by the parties in August 2007. In particular, there had been no explicit discussion of reimbursement for pilot training expenses, the amount of the expenses or the time over which the reimbursement was to take place. The appellate judge found that these issues were not even discussed in "more general terms".

Ballance held that the trial judge:

"would have committed reviewable error had he held that the measure of damages later discussed by the parties and subsequently articulated in the [pilot training bond], formed part of their earlier oral agreement made in August 2007."

The appellate court also made a number of determinations with respect to the calculation of damages by the trial judge. One of these rulings is particularly noteworthy: in considering the damages that were sought, Ballance noted that in fact, NTA had deprived itself of the benefits of the agreement by transferring Van Haren to another aircraft type. She ruled that "[i]n my view, it was a consideration worthy of significant weight in Mr. Van Haren's favour in the quantification of damages".

The appeal was dismissed with costs to Van Haren.

For further information on this topic please contact Carlos P Martins at Bersenas Jacobsen Chouest Thomson Blackburn LLP by telephone (+1 416 982 3800), fax (+1 416 982 3801) or email ([email protected]).


(1) Northern Thunderbird Air Inc v Van Haren, 2011 BCSC 837.