WAL-MART LEARNS AN EXPENSIVE LESSON

October 18, 2012

In a judgment delivered by a jury in Windsor on October 10, 2012, Wal-Mart was ordered to pay a former employee a total of $1.46 million for damages for wrongful dismissal as well as intentional infliction of mental suffering and punitive damages.

In this case, Meredith Boucher, a ten-year employee at Wal-Mart was subjected to six months of verbal abuse by her manager.  This abuse included comments such as “you are a [expletive] idiot”, as well as “Are you [expletive] stupid?”  The evidence indicated that her manager, an employee ten years her junior, forced her to count skids in front of other Wal-Mart employees to demonstrate that she was capable of counting.  It was also alleged by the plaintiff that she had been punched a couple of times by an assistant manager of the store.

As a result of her reaction to this treatment at work, the plaintiff found her weight dropping, and her health generally deteriorating.  She finally left the store and claimed constructive dismissal.  She sued Wal-Mart for damages.

In a jury decision, the plaintiff was awarded $1.46 million dollars against Wal-Mart and her manager made up as follows:

(a) FROM WAL-MART

(i) $200,000 for intentional infliction of mental suffering.

(ii) $1,000,000 in punitive damages.

(iii) $10,000 for the assault.

(b) FROM HER MANAGER:

(i) $100,000 for intention infliction of mental suffering and $50,000 for punitive damages.

The decision in this case is consistent with earlier decisions in Ontario and Alberta in which courts have expressed their clear displeasure with the improper actions of employers.  The courts have made clear that they will, in the appropriate cases, assess substantial damages for mental suffering and punitive damages, particularly in the case of employers like Wal-Mart who can well afford the payments.  Counsel for Wal-Mart intends to appeal the decision.  In the meantime, human resources professionals would be well advised to implement policies in the workplace to ensure that the company is not subject to such significant claims, including clear guidance to managers as to the scope of acceptable conduct towards subordinates.

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