A Prince George jury has awarded a former Burns Lake sawmill manager the largest punitive damages award in an employment law case in Canadian history.
At the conclusion of a three-week trial, the jury found Babine Forest Products Inc. and its owner, Hampton Lumber Mills Inc., had wrongfully dismissing Larry Higginson and ordered the companies to pay him $809,221.06 of which $572,814.04 is in punitive damages and $236,407.02 in compensatory damages.
The largest previous award was about $550,000, said lawyer Chris Forguson, who represented Higginson on behalf of Vancouver-based law firm TevlinGleadle.
According to a statement of claim submitted on Higginson's behalf, the employer had terminated Higginson's employment in October 2009 without cause and without notice after 34 years of service.
Further alleged in the claim, it was part of a larger strategy to get rid of long-term senior employees without incurring costs associated with reasonable notice or adequate compensation in lieu of notice.
"The strategy was either to make their jobs miserable so they would quit or to terminated them without notice or pay and for them to litigate in order to seek compensation," the claim states.
At the time Hampton acquired Babine in 2006, the mill's non-union management team consisted of six long-service employees including Higginson. He was the last one by the time he was let go in 2009.
When Higginson wouldn't quit, the owners concocted a cause allegation that the jury concluded had no substance, said Forguson.
The jury reached its decision on June 29 at the Prince George courthouse.
The defendants have already filed an appeal, Forguson said, and it will be decided by three BC Appeals Court Justices likely within six months to a year.
There is one example of an appeal that has backfired for a defendant. Forguson said a trial judge in Ontario issued a $25,000 award in a wrongful dismissal case but, after the court of appeal sent it back to him for reconsideration, upped the total to about $550,000.
At the time of his dismissal, Higginson was the mill's electrical supervisor and was overseeing five to seven electricians.
In 2011, the Employment Standards Tribunal rejected Higginson's application to receive overtime pay for the extra hours he had put in at the sawmill and had not yet taken off because he had been dismissed.