A Painful Lesson in Punitive Damages Against Employers: Eynon v Simplicity Air LTD., 2021 ONCA 409

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Written By: Nick Todorovic and Lori Khaouli, Student-at-Law

A Painful Lesson in Punitive Damages Against Employers: Eynon v Simplicity Air LTD., 2021 ONCA 409

The Ontario Court of Appeal in Eynon v. Simplicity Air Ltd. upheld a punitive damages award of $150,000 against an employer for the misconduct of its supervisors after an employee was injured in the workplace.

Overview of the Case

The punitive damages award against the employer was the basis of the appeal. The respondent employee had brought an action against his employer for the injuries he sustained in the workplace while engaging in “horseplay” with a coworker. The employee was injured after climbing a 14-foot-high chain hoist and suffered injuries to his genital area, requiring immediate medical attention.

The jury awarded $75,000 to the employee for general damages and lost wages – the award was reduced by 75% due to the employee’s contributory negligence. In addition, the jury awarded $150,000 in punitive damages against the employee, with no reduction in the award for the employee’s contributory negligence.

The trial judge stated that the relevant and determinative evidence involved in the jury’s assessment of the punitive damages were the actions of the supervisors between the time when the employee’s injury occurred and the employee’s arrival to the hospital. The employee gave evidence that after screaming in pain, his supervisor had laughed at him and refused to call an ambulance. The employee further testified that another supervisor had instructed him to say that the injury happened at home.

Issues on Appeal

The Court addressed five issues on appeal:

  • Whether the issue of punitive damages was properly left with the jury;
  • Whether the trial judge provided proper instructions to the jury on the issue of punitive damages;
  • Whether the employer is liable for punitive damages resulting from an employee’s conduct;
  • Whether the punitive damages were too high; and
  • Whether the punitive damages award should have been reduced by contributory negligence.

Court of Appeal Ruling

The employer argued that the punitive damages award should not have been left with the jury, but the Court of Appeal held that the jury was entitled to make that assessment. Further, the Court held that there was enough evidence that a properly instructed jury, acting reasonably, could have awarded punitive damages in these circumstances. The Court specifically stated that the supervisors’ instructions to falsely report that the employee was injured at home warranted an award of punitive damages.

The employer then argued that the trial judge’s instructions regarding the assessment of the punitive damages was improper, and that the trial judge should have provided guidance on the amount of punitive damages that could have been awarded. The Court held that the trial judge’s instructions were proper, and that it would have been improper for the trial judge to suggest a range for punitive damages to the jury absent an agreement of the range by counsel.

The employer then argued that it should not be liable for the misconduct of its supervisors involved in this incident. The Court disagreed with this argument, stating that “there was no question that the conduct of the supervisors was the conduct of their employer.” [18]

The Court rejected the employer’s last two arguments in which the employer argued that the punitive damages award was “inordinately large” in that it exceeds what is rationally required to punish the defendant, and that the punitive damages award should have been reduced due to the employee’s contributory negligence.

The Court concluded that the punitive damages award was solely determined based on the supervisors’ conduct after the employee was injured, and not on the employee’s contributory negligence. The Court reiterated that the purpose of punitive damages is to punish a defendant’s misconduct, and not to compensate a plaintiff.

Why This Matters

This case will build a solid foundation for future punitive damage awards for the inappropriate conduct of a defendant. The threshold of awarding punitive damages seems to have been lowered as well given the facts of this case and may open the door to more punitive damages claims being pursued. This decision reinforces the fact that there is no basis for reducing a punitive damages award based on contributory negligence of a plaintiff. The sole purpose of a punitive damages award is to punish the defendant for its own misconduct and to deter future misbehavior of the same nature.

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