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A former Windsor Walmart employee was awarded $1.46 million by a jury after she suffered months of abuse by her boss.
This generous award, which was more than Meredith Boucher sought, shows that juries are prepared to punish companies that do not provide a harassment-free working environment for their employees. However, Boucher has yet to receive a penny, because Walmart has appealed the decision.
In November, 2009, after 10 years with Walmart, Boucher resigned from the company’s Windsor store because of her manager Jason Pinnock’s belittling and demeaning behaviour. Her testimony at trial revealed that the harassment included swearing at her in front of other workers, belittling her when she called in sick and forcing her to count skids of products in front of other workers to prove she could count.
Boucher’s employment contract said she was entitled to two weeks of pay per year of service or 20 weeks. The company actually paid her for 32 weeks, but even so, Boucher sued both Walmart and Pinnock for $1 million for constructive dismissal and $250,000 more for punitive damages.
In early October, a jury of three men and three women found that she had been constructively dismissed and awarded her $1.46 million in damages.
Boucher testified that Pinnock’s harassment began after the 2009 Victoria Day weekend when she had refused to falsify logs recording cleaning frequency in the bakery and temperatures maintained at various times in the food areas of the Tecumseh Rd. East store.
Boucher’s lawyer Myron Shulgan said in an interview Pinnock’s actions included swearing at Boucher and calling her and ‘idiot’ and ‘stupid’ in front of her peers and subordinates. On one occasion when she brought in a doctor’s note saying she couldn’t work, Pinnock ordered her to ‘get your … ass in here.”
She also told the court that in June 2009 she was punched twice in the arm by another employee. She reported these incidents to Pinnock and senior management, but the employee was not charged with assault or disciplined by the company. That July, Boucher was taken off days and put on the overnight shift.
In spite of repeated complaints to Walmart’s District People Manager, the company took no steps to intervene or curtail Pinnock’s behaviour, the court heard. In fact, after meeting with a committee of three senior Walmart managers, Boucher was advised that her complaints did not warrant further consideration.
Shulgan says it is noteworthy that Boucher was courageous enough to champion her cause since she could have been out of pocket by $70,000 or $80,000 in costs if she was unsuccessful. “She was not motivated by financial gain. After the jury said she was constructively dismissed, she felt vindicated. She had no idea how much the jury awarded her until I told her.”
Awards of punitive damages are not common in Canadian employment law cases. However, a British Columbia jury recently awarded Larry Higginson $809,000 in wrongful dismissal damages and punitive damages against Babine Forest Products Ltd . The company later appealed and the parties settled out of court.
Walmart lawyer Stephen Jovanovic told the Windsor Star that he considered the jury’s award wildly out of whack and that he believes it will be overturned on appeal . However, Shulgan says courts show great deference to jury verdicts because the punitive damages award is an amount the jury believes is required to punish the wrongdoer and deter it from continuing the wrongful conduct in the future.