$225,000 added to $500,000 damage award against employer

Employer’s refusal to acknowledge severity of assault and lasting psychological effect on employee complicated legal process: Court

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice has added more than $200,000 in costs to a $500,000 award to an employee assaulted by a supervisor because of the employer’s refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation.

Marta Piresferreira, 60, a salesperson for Bell Mobility in Ottawa, descended into a spiral of depression and psychological problems after she was yelled at and pushed by her supervisor. The court ruled Bell Mobility contributed to Piresferreira’s condition by refusing to acknowledge the incident’s effect on her and didn’t properly discipline the supervisor for his misconduct. As a result, the court awarded Piresferreira a total of $500,955 in damages for assault and “intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, as well as wrongful dismissal" and loss of future earnings because she was unable to work. Piresferreira’s partner was also awarded $15,000 for the damage to their personal lives because of Piresferreira’s condition.

Over the more than three years it took for the case to be resolved, Piresferreira racked up more than $300,000 in legal costs. The court recognized Piresferreira and her partner were “of moderate means and would not have been able to pay this amount of money under any circumstances.

The court attributed much of the blame for the case dragging on to multiple unreasonable settlement offers from Bell Mobility that refused to acknowledge the assaults negative effect on Piresferreira’s professional and personal life. Bell Mobility had initially offered to help Piresferreira make up with her supervisor and continue to work with him, which was not possible for Piresferreira in her psychological condition.

Several months later, Bell Mobility told Piresferreira her supervisor had been relocated and she could return to work without worrying about encountering him. This, however, was not true as the supervisor was still in the office.

Six months later, the supervisor had retired and Bell Mobility offered Piresferreira her job back in the same office. However, the company refused to acknowledge the harm that had been done to her and its poor handling of the situation. Returning to work a year to the same position would also have been difficult as Piresferreira’s clients were now working with other sales representatives. Bell Mobility took her refusal as a voluntary resignation.

In March 2008, shortly before the trial started and nearly three years after the assault, Bell Mobility offered her financial compensation. However, the offer was for $80,000 plus costs, significantly less than her lost earnings and medical expenses for the three years.

The court found Bell Mobility’s refusal to admit any wrongdoing on its part or that of its supervisor, as well as its unreasonable offers to Piresferreira and refusal to acknowledge the serious effects the assault had on her, extended and complicated the legal process. It ruled the company was responsible for Piresferreira’s costs on a substantial indemnity basis.

“In the manner in which Bell Mobility presented its case, the suggestion was made repeatedly that, though (the supervisor) should not have pushed Piresferreira, his actions may have been justifiable as a result of something Piresferreira had done or had not done that had frustrated or angered him,” said the court. “This line of attack on the part of Bell Mobility was a waste of everyone’s time.”

The court ruled Bell Mobility should pay Piresferreira $225,000 in costs in addition to the original damages award of $500,955. As with the damages, the supervisor was held jointly and severally liable for most of the costs. 

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