On October 10, 2012, a jury awarded a former Wal-Mart employee over $1.4 million dollars in damages. The jury found that the employee was constructively dismissed due to an abusive work environment at the Windsor Wal-Mart store. This is the largest such award in Canadian history and, as expected, will be appealed by Wal-Mart.

Summary of the Claim

Although the case is not publicly available, we can glean some facts from media reports and the Statement of Claim.

Meredith Boucher was an assistant manager at a Wal-Mart in Windsor, Ontario with nine years service. She alleged abuse by the store manager, including being forced to count skids in front of other employees to prove she could count; being punched in her arm twice by a fellow assistant manager; and being called a “(expletive) idiot.”

Boucher claimed constructive dismissal when she resigned because of this abusive work environment and that she was therefore constructively dismissed. She also claimed sexual harassment and discrimination, intentional infliction of mental suffering and assault.

Jury Verdict

This is another of the rare, but recent, jury cases in employment litigation. Like the jury in a recent case in Prince George that we reported on (see the post), the jury accepted the employee’s claims. But the damages were even higher.

The jury awarded $1.46 million:

Against Wal-Mart:

  • $200,000 for intentional infliction of mental suffering
  • $1 million for punitive damages
  • $10,000 for assault

Against the manager personally:

  • $100,000 for intentional infliction of mental suffering
  • $150,000 for punitive damages

Appeal

Wal-Mart has appealed the jury’s verdict to the Ontario Court of Appeal, calling it “shockingly unreasonable.” Appellate courts generally pay considerable deference to juries on findings of fact. However, as recently evidenced by the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Honda v. Keays, appellate courts are more likely to intervene to reduce damages awards, especially punitive damages awards.

Commentary

Although we have limited details because the decision is not publicly available, this case is nonetheless a striking example of the potential liability that can arise in situations of workplace harassment/bullying or where serious abuses are found against a manager. In BC in particular, we have to be concerned about how these cases will influence decisions under the Bill 14 amendments to the Workers Compensation Act about which we have commented here .

Employers should be vigilant in enforcing respectful workplace policies and providing employee training. Employers should also be quick to investigate any potential complaints so that workplace conflicts can be quickly addressed and neutralized and actions for constructive dismissal and related claims can be avoided.

We will monitor the progress of this case at appeal.