$573,000 in punitive damages awarded in employment case.

In early 2012, a jury in Prince George, B.C. awarded a plaintiff approximately $809,000 in damages over a wrongful dismissal. Included in that amount is the largest punitive damages award in an employment law case in Canadian history.

Larry Higginson worked at a sawmill in Burns Lake, B.C., for 34 years until October 2009, when he was fired without severance pay. Hampton Lumber Mills Inc., based in Portland, Ore., had acquired the sawmill from Babine Forest Products Inc. in November 2006. Higginson sued for wrongful dismissal, claiming he was terminated as an attempt to avoid paying severance to long-term employees. The companies, joint defendants in Higginson v. Babine Forest Products Ltd., argued they had just cause for dismissal.

Following a three-week trial, the jury decided that there was no cause for dismissal and awarded Higginson $236,000 in compensatory damages for wrongful dismissal and $573,000 in punitive damages for the companies’ conduct in terminating him.

The company’s appeal of the punitive damages award was ultimately settled. So we don’t know the final outcome. However, this case reinforces that employers need to closely examine cause for termination allegations, particularly with long-service employees and especially when the cause allegations are related to poor, ongoing performance.