A jury in Prince George, British Columbia has awarded $573,000 in punitive damages to a terminated employee.  It may be the highest such award in Canadian employment law history.

The employee had worked for Babine Forest Products for 34 years.  The company was acquired by Portland, Oregon based Hampton Lumber Mills in 2006.  The employee was then dismissed for cause without notice or compensation.

A jury trial does not result in reasons for decision, but it seems the jury was convinced that there was no cause for dismissal, that the employer had cooked up the cause excuse to avoid severance liability and that the employee suffered as a result.

In addition to the punitive damages, the employee was awarded $236,000 in damages for wrongful dismissal.

The punitive damage award is very high and may be reduced if appealed.  But an appeal is unlikely to overturn the jury’s findings of liability and we may never know all the facts of the case.  Nevertheless,  the case provides a useful caution to remind employers of the importance of handling terminations fairly and sensitively.  Anything less which results in the employee suffering some damage, may convince a jury or a judge that punitive damages are called for.

The case is called Higginson v. Babine Forest Products Inc. and Hampton Lumber Mills Inc.  We will watch for an appeal.