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Tag: Corfield v. Shaw

Employer Not Vicariously Liable for Abuse Between Adult Co-Workers in Commercial Enterprise

Reasons for judgement were released last week by the BC Supreme Court, Victoria Registry, addressing whether an employer should be found vicariously liable for harm caused by sexual abuse committed by one worker against another.  In short the Court found that without an employer giving more than an opportunity for abuse by virtue of “time and place” vicarious liability should not apply.
In last week’s case (Corfield v. Shaw) the Plaintiff was victimized on a number of occasions by her supervisor at work.   The supervisor was found liable and ordered to pay damages.  The Court was asked to find the employer vicariously liable for the abuse but refused to do so finding that the law should not extend liability in these circumstances.  In dismissing the claim against the employer Mr. Justice Butler provided the following reasons:

[73] The question a court must consider where there has been a sexual battery is whether the unauthorized acts of the employee are so connected with authorized acts that “they may be regarded as modes (albeit improper modes) of doing authorized acts”.  In Bazley, the court set out a two-step process for determining when an unauthorized act is so connected to the employer’s enterprises that vicarious liability should be imposed.  The first step is to consider whether there are precedents which unambiguously determine whether vicarious liability should apply in the circumstances.  The second step is to determine whether vicarious liability should be imposed in light of the policy rationales behind strict liability.

[74] The parties did not fully argue the first step analysis; whether there are precedents applicable to the vicarious liability analysis in this case.  This is likely because very few decisions which have considered the vicarious liability of employers since Bazley involve adult co-workers in commercial enterprises. ..

[76] In the absence of prior decisions which unambiguously determine whether vicarious liability should be found, I must proceed to the second step of the analysis.  This is described at paras. 41 and 42 in Bazley.  At this stage of the analysis, a court is to “openly confront the question of whether liability should lie against the employer”.  That is done by considering if there is “a significant connection between the creation or enhancement of a risk and the wrong that accrues”.  Incidental connections to the employment enterprise, like time and place (without more), will not suffice.  Once engaged in a particular business, it is fair that an employer be made to pay the generally foreseeable costs of that business.  In contrast, to impose liability for costs unrelated to the risk would effectively make the employer an involuntary insurer.

[77] At para. 41 of Bazley, McLachlin J. (as she then was) set out some of the factors that may be considered by a court to determine if there was a strong connection between what the employer was asking the employee to do (i.e. the risk created by the employer’s enterprise) and the wrongful act:

(a)   the opportunity that the enterprise afforded the employee to abuse his or her power;

(b)   the extent to which the wrongful act may have furthered the employer’s aims (and hence be more likely to have been committed by the employee);

(c)   the extent to which the wrongful act was related to friction, confrontation or intimacy inherent in the employer’s enterprise;

(d)   the extent of power conferred on the employee in relation to the victim;

(e)   the vulnerability of potential victims to wrongful exercise of the employee’s power.

[78] At para. 46, McLachlin J. summarizes the approach to this step:

In summary, the test for vicarious liability for an employee’s sexual abuse of a client should focus on whether the employer’s enterprise and empowerment of the employee materially increased the risk of the sexual assault and hence the harm. The test must not be applied mechanically, but with a sensitive view to the policy considerations that justify the imposition of vicarious liability __ fair and efficient compensation for wrong and deterrence. This requires trial judges to investigate the employee’s specific duties and determine whether they gave rise to special opportunities for wrongdoing. Because of the peculiar exercises of power and trust that pervade cases such as child abuse, special attention should be paid to the existence of a power or dependency relationship, which on its own often creates a considerable risk of wrongdoing.

[79] When I apply the relevant factors to the circumstances of this case, I conclude that there was not a strong connection between what Mr. Shaw was asked to do and the sexual assaults he committed.  The opportunity afforded to Mr. Shaw to abuse his power was not significant or unusual.  The assignment of work was done openly.  There was ample opportunity for employees to raise issues about the work or work assignments with senior management, Mr. Baker.  The wrongful acts did not further the employer’s aims in any way.  It cannot be seriously contended that there was friction, confrontation or intimacy inherent in the business of Baker Industries.  There was nothing about the operation of a residential service plumbing business that created situations of intimacy between employees.  While Mr. Shaw was provided with supervisory authority in relation to Ms. Corfield and other employees, the power given to him was not extensive.  As I have already noted, it was not power that could be easily used for a wrongful purpose.  Finally, plumbers in the employ of Baker Industries would not be expected to be potentially vulnerable to the wrongful exercise of Mr. Shaw’s authority as a supervisor.

[80] In short, there is nothing about the enterprise of Baker Industries or the authority imparted to Mr. Shaw that materially increased the risk of sexual assault of fellow employees.  Quite simply, this is a situation where Mr. Shaw took advantage of incidental connections to Ms. Corfield that occurred in an employment relationship.  He took advantage of the opportunities of time and place.  That alone is not sufficient for a finding of vicarious liability.

BC Sexual Abuse Civil Cases and the Law of "Indivisible Injury"

As previously discussed, the law of damages in BC has developed as follows with respect to indivisible injury compensation:
[55] Indivisible injuries are those that cannot be separated, such as aggravation or exacerbation of an earlier injury, an injury to the same area of the body, or global symptoms that are impossible to separate: Bradley, at para. 20; see also Athey, at paras. 22-25.

[56] If the injuries are indivisible, the court must apply the “but for” test in respect of the defendant’s act. Even though there may be several tortuous or non-tortuous causes of injury, so long as the defendant’s act is a cause, the defendant is fully liable for that damage: Bradley, at paras. 32-37; see also Resurfice Corp. v. Hanke, 2007 SCC 7 at paras. 19-23.

This principle becomes particularly important with respect to civil sexual abuse claims.  The sad reality is that many abused people are repeat victims with a number of different wrongdoers taking advantage of them.  If this is the case, and if the overall harm caused by the abuse is “indivisible” then the victim can collect their damages for the whole of the indivisible injury from any one of their perpetrators.  This principle was demonstrated in reasons for judgment released this week by the BC Supreme Court, Victoria Registry.
In this week’s case (Corfield v. Shaw) the Plaintiff was the victim of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather.  The abuse was “egregious and prolonged“.  Later she was the victim of sexual abuse at work.  The latter abuse was of a less severe character.  She sued for damages as a result of the workplace abuse.  The Defendant was ultimately found liable.
The Defendant argued that the damages should be modest because the Plaintiff “was still experiencing emotional and psychological difficulties from the Childhood abuse” and that these consequences “would have continued thereafter even without Mr. Shaw’s wrongful actions“.  Mr. Justice Butler rejected this argument and assessed damages on an indivisible basis.  In doing so the Court provided the following reasons:

[101] There is no question that the nature of the emotional and psychological injuries she suffered as a result of the Childhood Abuse is similar to, if not the same as, what she has experienced since the Assaults.  Any attempt to divide those injuries into causes as between the two tortfeasors would be artificial.  There was no evidence proffered which would allow me to conclude that some of the symptoms or emotional difficulties suffered by Ms. Corfield since 2005 were caused solely by the Childhood Abuse.  Accordingly, I conclude that all of Ms. Corfield’s emotional and psychological difficulties since 2005 were caused or contributed to by the Assaults.  In other words, the injuries she has suffered from since 2005 are indivisible from those injuries suffered from the Childhood Abuse.

[102] In reaching that conclusion, I am not suggesting that the Assaults were the only cause of her injuries, just that her “damage and loss has been caused by the fault of two or more persons”, one of whom is Mr. Shaw.  As a result, in accordance with the provisions of s. 4 of the Negligence Act, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 333, Mr. Shaw is jointly and severally liable for the injuries suffered since the Assaults, and he is responsible for the full cost of loss and damage suffered since the Assaults subject to consideration of the crumbling skull principle.

[103] The difference between a thin skull and a crumbling skull is described in Athey at paras. 34 and 35:

… The “crumbling skull” doctrine is an awkward label for a fairly simple idea.  It is named after the well-known “thin skull” rule, which makes the tortfeasor liable for the plaintiff’s injuries even if the injuries are unexpectedly severe owing to a pre-existing condition. The tortfeasor must take his or her victim as the tortfeasor finds the victim, and is therefore liable even though the plaintiff’s losses are more dramatic than they would be for the average person.

The so-called “crumbling skull” rule simply recognizes that the pre-existing condition was inherent in the plaintiff’s “original position”.

[104] One aspect of Ms. Corfield’s “original position” was described by Dr. Bruce; she was “more vulnerable to experience a more intense emotional affect from stressful events”.  In other words, she was fragile and susceptible to suffering emotional damage.  There is no question that this condition falls within the “crumbling skull” category.  Ms. Corfield continues to have that susceptibility and Mr. Shaw does not have to compensate her for continuing vulnerability.

[105] However, the defendants also argue that Ms. Corfield was still experiencing emotional and psychological difficulties from the Childhood Abuse before she was assaulted by Mr. Shaw.  They say the symptoms she suffered from included anxiety, depression, poor sleep, nightmares, alcohol abuse and other symptoms.  The evidence of Ms. Corfield’s mother provides some support for this position.  Ms. Corfield herself said that she “felt herself fairly recovered” from the Childhood Abuse.  I take this to mean that she was doing reasonably well but had not fully recovered.  In cross-examination she admitted that her doctor recommended she attend counselling in 2003 and 2004.  This confirms that in the two years before she started working at Baker Industries she was experiencing emotional difficulties.  She also admitted to continuing intimacy problems arising from the Childhood Abuse…

[116] In these circumstances, an appropriate award for non-pecuniary damages including the aggravating circumstances is $70,000.  This must be reduced to take into account Ms. Corfield’s pre-existing condition.  A deduction of 15% results in an assessment of $59,500.  I will round that up and award the sum of $60,000 for non-pecuniary damages.