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Sanity prevails: the tale of a 90 per cent reduction to a punitive damages award

By Catherine Coulter

In the May 2014 Ontario Court of Appeal decision in the case of Boucher v Wal-Mart, the $1,150,000 (£684,817) in punitive damages previously awarded to Boucher by a jury was reduced to $110,000. The decision represents a good monetary result for Wal-Mart but it is laced with lessons for employers to keep in mind when faced with allegations of managerial harassment.

Boucher was a 10-year Wal-Mart employee at the company’s Windsor store. After a series of promotions and good performance reviews, she was promoted to assistant manager in 2008. The following year, store manager Pinnock began a series of actions intended to harass and belittle Boucher after she refused to falsify a temperature log. Boucher complained to Wal-Mart’s senior management but her complaints were held to be ‘unfounded’ and Boucher was told that she would be held accountable for making them. With her complaints falling on deaf ears and the harassment continuing (often in full view of other assistant managers at the store), Boucher left and claimed constructive dismissal.

The case was tried by a jury and Boucher was awarded damages as follows: (i) $1,200,000 from Wal-Mart, made up of punitive damages of $1,000,000 and aggravated damages of $200,000; and (ii) $250,000 from Pinnock, made up of punitive damages of $150,000 and damages for intentional infliction of mental suffering in the amount of $100,000. As the employer, Wal-Mart was ultimately responsible for the damages award against Pinnock. While there have been a few extremely high punitive damages awards under Canadian law, they are the exception to the rule. Needless to say, Wal-Mart appealed the decision…

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