In a cautionary tale for employers, a jury in Windsor, Ontario awarded $1.4 million in damages to a former Wal-Mart employee who alleged that she had been constructively dismissed after being subjected to intentional infliction of mental suffering by her former manager.
The jury award included $1.2 million in punitive damages and damages for mental distress against the employer, and an additional $250,000.00 in punitive damages and damages for mental distress against the manager. The former employee established that the manager had punched her on the arm on two occasions, and had subjected her to profane and insulting mental abuse. Those allegations were that the manager had called the employee “a [expletive] idiot” in front of her co-workers, and that the manager had made the former employee count skids in front of co-workers in order to prove to him that she could accurately count.
A link to the Windsor Star article on the court decision is attached: http://blogs.windsorstar.com/2012/10/10/walmart-must-pay-1-4-million-for-mistreating-employee/
The employer has already appealed the jury’s verdict to the Ontario Court of Appeal, calling the award “…wholly disproportionate and/or shockingly unreasonable.” This is not surprising, given that this award would set a new high-water mark for punitive damages in a wrongful dismissal case. (It appears that the jury may have based its award roughly on the amount that the former employee, who is currently 42 years of age, would have earned had she remained employed in her position until age 65. This figure had been raised by the former employee’s counsel in his closing submissions, although the trial judge had specifically instructed the jury not to consider that figure.)
Although, in our view, it is likely that the jury award will be set aside or reduced on appeal, this decision does underscore how important it is for employers to have a clear policy against incidents of workplace violence and harassment and to take prompt action to address such incidents when potential allegations of this nature come to light.