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A recent jury verdict in B.C. where a sawmill manager was fired by new owners, shows that you have to treat employees honestly and fairly or face the consequences in court.
The jury awarded Larry Higginson $809,000 in wrongful dismissal damages and punitive damages, but what he actually got is unknown. The company appealed and the parties settled out of court.
Higginson was an electrical supervisor at a mill in Burns Lake which was owned by Babine Forest Products and then sold to Hampton Lumber Mills, a company based in Portland, Oregon. After the takeover, Hampton sent a U.S. manager to run the mill.
Higginson had spent 34 years at the mill and was the last of six senior managers fired after Hampton took over. In October 2009, Higginson was fired allegedly for cause and without notice.
The company said he was uncooperative and cited a laundry list of minor infractions. The last straw, the company said, was when his manager walked into a room where Higginson was talking to two union members about the mill’s recent move from eight hour to 10 hour shifts.
Higginson’s lawyer Chris Forguson, with the Vancouver firm of TevlinGleadle Employment Law Strategies, says the company argued it could fire him because he was not supporting their position that 10 hour shifts were good for the mill.
The evidence at trial supported Higginson’s claim that his firing was part of a strategy by Hampton to get rid of long term senior employees without giving reasonable notice and paying the amounts for severance required by law.
A former employee who was part of the U.S. manager’s ‘inner circle’ testified he used a strategy called the ‘theory of self-selection’ which involved putting pressure on people until they ‘self-select and go away.’
Jury trials are rare in civil cases. However Forguson says he and his client decided on a jury as opposed to a judge alone because they thought the community would have a better understanding of the power of a sawmill in a one employer town and the consequences of an abuse of that power against a single person.
That decision paid off in June when after a three-week trial, the jury awarded Higginson $236,000 in wrongful dismissal damages plus $573,000 in punitive damages for the way he was terminated.
The wrongful dismissal damages were based on 24 months of pay, minus $50,000 because the jury thought he could have looked harder for another job. But they more than compensated him for this deduction by awarding him the highest amount of punitive damages in Canadian employment law history equal to another 48 months of pay.
We don’t know exactly how much Higginson will take home because the company appealed the decision and the appeal was withdrawn when both sides settled.
“This was simply a case of a big company trying to avoid paying the legally required amounts to get rid of more expensive long service employees,” Forguson says. “The jury understood this and awarded damages accordingly.”