Readers of our blog will know that employers have a legal obligation to take workplace harassment seriously. These obligations are set out in Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and require that employers with more than five employees have a policy and procedure dealing with workplace violence and harassment. Employers are required to take the safety of their employees seriously and adequately respond to incidents of violence and harassment, but, not every employer does. A recent case sheds light on the consequences of looking the other way when it comes to violence and harassment.
Bassanese v. German Canadian News Company Limited et al.
In Bassanese v. German Canadian News Company et al. Justice Sossin of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice awarded the plaintiff, Ms. Bassanese, $50,000 in aggravated damages for the bad faith actions of her former employer, German Canadian News Company (GCNC).
At the time of her termination from GCNC Ms. Bassanese was 73 years old and had worked at GCNC for 19 years. In the final period of her employment, Ms. Bassanese was harassed by a co-worker. This co-worker yelled and screamed at her, called her an idiot and told her she should be fired. Ms. Bassanese complained to GCNC about the treatment and no actions were taken. On her final day of employment, Ms. Bassanese alleged that the abusive co-worker slapped her in the face three times. GCNC’s response to this situation was to fire Ms. Bassanese. They provided her with no notice.
Ms. Bassanese’s Claim
In response to her termination, Ms. Bassanese filed a lawsuit against GCNC including a claim for aggravated damages. She submitted that the following actions were taken by GCNC in bad faith and justified aggravated damages:
- Terminating her employment without notice;
- Failing to investigate her harassment complaint;
- Terminating her employment in response to her complaint about being slapped – constituting a reprisal under s.50 of OSHA;
- Failing to provide her with a reference or assistance in finding a new job; and
- Failing to provide a subsidy for relocation or retaining counselling.
Justice Sossin awarded Ms. Bassanese $50,000 citing that GCNA ignored her complaint and neglected to investigate the complaint or take steps to address the harasser’s inappropriate conduct. Ms. Bassanese was also awarded 19 months of notice pay plus an additional 10% for the loss of employment benefits during the notice period and $15,000 for the slap, for which GCNA was found vicariously liable.
Lessons for Employers
This decision should reinforce that employers need to take the complaints of their employees seriously. Had GCNA conducted a proper investigation and taken appropriate steps to deal with the harassing co-worker, it is likely that they could have avoided the aggravated damages award and perhaps Ms. Bassanese would never have been slapped and terminated.