In the decision of Eynon v Simplicity Air Ltd [Eynon] the Ontario Court of Appeal (“ONCA”) upheld an award of punitive damages against an employer in the amount of $150,000, due to the conduct of the employer’s supervisors following an injury to an employee that occurred at work while the employee was engaged in “horseplay”.
Mr. Eynon, was an employee of Simplicity Air Ltd (the “Company”), a company specializing in vehicle and equipment service repair. Mr. Eynon was injured at work after he had been challenged by a coworker to climb a 14-foot chain hoist. The injuries he sustained as a result of falling from the chain hoist and becoming caught on it required Mr. Eynon to be hospitalized and undergo surgery.
Mr. Eynon submitted a claim for benefits with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (“WSIB”), which was denied by the WSIB because Mr. Eynon admitted that his injury had happened while engaging in “horseplay.” This led the WSIB to determine the injury did not take place in the course of Mr. Eynon’s employment, despite the fact that it had occurred within the workplace.
After Mr. Eynon’s WSIB claim was denied, he sued the Company in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice for negligence, claiming damages for general damages, lost wages, and other amounts. Mr. Eynon raised a number of allegations against the Company, including that he had not been provided with any training on safety related to the dangerous tasks he was required to perform, that he had been assigned to drive a forklift without proper certification, and that there was no supervisor on the floor on the day of his injury. Mr. Eynon further alleged that because he had not been properly trained to operate the chain hoist on which he was injured, he did not know that climbing it was dangerous.
Additionally, Mr. Eynon claimed that his supervisor had laughed at him upon discovering that he was stuck on the chain hoist and had been injured, initially refused to call him an ambulance or drive him to the hospital, and, along with another supervisor, told Mr. Eynon to lie, and say that his injury had occurred at home.
The supervisors denied these allegations, with the exception of laughing at Mr. Eynon when he was discovered stuck to the chain hoist. The supervisor in question claimed his reaction happened before he recognized that Mr. Eynon had actually suffered an injury. However, ultimately the jury preferred the evidence of Mr. Eynon in coming to findings.
At trial, the Company was found guilty of negligence by a jury. Mr. Eynon was awarded both general and lost wages damages, though the amount of each of these awards was lowered by 75% to reflect Mr. Eynon’s contributory negligence.
The jury also awarded $150,000 in punitive damages against the Company, which the Company appealed to the ONCA.
The punitive damages award was upheld on appeal. The ONCA dismissed the Company’s arguments that the issue of punitive damages had been improperly left with the jury, stating that the trial judge had adequately explained the principles and factors to be considered in giving a punitive damages award, and had also “identified aspects of the [Company’s] conduct that were relevant to the claim of punitive damages.”
The ONCA noted that the jury had characterized the Company’s work culture as one where “employees failed to place adequate importance on best safety practices.” Additionally, the ONCA stated that the conduct of the two supervisors, in telling Mr. Eynon to falsely report that his injury had occurred at home, constituted an actionable wrong under s. 22.1 and s. 155.1 of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act [WSIA]. Given that the Company had not had any penalty imposed on them under the WSIA for the misconduct of their supervisors, the ONCA ruled that a punitive damages award was appropriate.
The Company also attempted to argue that if the punitive damages award was upheld, it should have been subject to a contributory negligence deduction, just as the general and lost wages damages had been. The ONCA rejected this argument, highlighting the fact that the punitive damages had been awarded as punishment for the conduct of the Company’s supervisors after Mr. Eynon had been injured, meaning that Mr. Eynon’s contributory negligence leading up to the accident was irrelevant.
Eynon highlights the importance of maintaining a health and safety compliant workplace. If an employer’s workplace culture is one in which health and safety measures are not followed, and employees are not properly trained on such matters, they could find themselves liable for injuries that occur in the workplace, even if said injuries did not technically take place during the course of an employee’s duties.
Eynon is also a reminder to employers that where a strict adherence to health and safety obligations are not maintained in the workplace, employee misconduct and “horseplay” at work may fall outside of the WSIA, and employers could be subject to negligence actions from their employees with the potential for claims for large punitive damages. Accordingly, these actions could result in employers having to directly pay employees large sums for general damages, lost wages, and other amounts due to the injury sustained at work.
Finally, Eynon serves as a reminder that employers can be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees. In this case, the Company was found to be liable for the individual actions of two supervisors. Employers should ensure that their supervisory staff are trained regularly, and understand their obligations in the workplace when a workplace injury does occur.
This blog is provided as an information service and summary of workplace legal issues.
This information is not intended as legal advice.