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Punitive Damages and Assault

If I am injured in an assault, will the judge award punitive damages to punish my assailant?  What if my other damages are significant, and already impose financial hardship on the assailant?

In a decision released this week (Rycroft v. Rego, 2017 BCSC 373), Mr. Justice Williams provided his judgment in a case of physical assault injuries from a 2009 altercation.  The judge concluded that as a result of the assault, the plaintiff (Mr. Rycroft), sustained injury to the left side of his head, and soft tissue injuries to his arm, elbow, and hand. He also suffered a left eye injury, which ultimately required cataract surgery. His most significant injury was to his right knee, requiring an arthroscopic medial meniscetomy. He was left with residual pain, stiffness, and reduced function, and would require a total knee replacement.

Mr. Justice Williams awarded damages for pain and suffering ($70,000.00), income loss to the date of trial ($100,000.00), loss of future earning capacity ($45,000.00), and aggravated damages ($2,500.00). The plaintiff also sought punitive damages in the amount of $15,000.00 (the assessment of which must be considered after aggravated damages). In rejecting the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages, Mr. Justice Williams set out the law in this regard, confirming that these damages are intended to punish the defendant:

[159]     Before outlining my findings on this head of damages, it is important to further set out the law concerning punitive damages. Courts have made it clear that these damages apply when the defendant’s conduct was especially malicious, and that such damages are not meant to be compensatory. On this point, the Supreme Court of Canada said the following in Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto, [1995] 2 S.C.R. 1130 at para 196:

Punitive damages may be awarded in situations where the defendant’s misconduct is so malicious, oppressive and high‑handed that it offends the court’s sense of decency. Punitive damages bear no relation to what the plaintiff should receive by way of compensation. Their aim is not to compensate the plaintiff, but rather to punish the defendant. It is the means by which the jury or judge expresses its outrage at the egregious conduct of the defendant. They are in the nature of a fine which is meant to act as a deterrent to the defendant and to others from acting in this manner. It is important to emphasize that punitive damages should only be awarded in those circumstances where the combined award of general and aggravated damages would be insufficient to achieve the goal of punishment and deterrence.

In the application of this law, he concluded that the other damages awarded were sufficient to achieve the goal of punishment and deterrence, and declined to award punitive damages:

[162]     In my respectful view, while the conduct of the defendant was undoubtedly wrong and warrants sanction, I must also take into account that what occurred was in the nature of a foolish loss of temper and acting out. On the basis of my findings, Mr. Rego was angry at what he considered to be harsh treatment of his son. He confronted the party he thought was responsible and did so in an unacceptable way.

[163]     At the same time, this was not a planned, deliberate and calculated attempt to physically assault another person.

[164]     While I accept that it would be well within the realm of reason to impose punitive damages, I also take into account the findings that I have made in this case, together with the very substantial awards of damages that I have outlined above. Consequently, I find that adding punitive damages to those awards would constitute adding to what is already a very significant sanction upon Mr. Rego in circumstances where I do not expect that he will be able to rely on any insurance policy to satisfy the damages award.

[165]     There is no question that this Court’s findings of the defendant’s responsibility and the damage awards made will impose a substantial financial hardship upon him and constitutes a serious censure of his conduct.

[166]     In my view, this is an appropriate case in which to decline to make any award under this head of damages.

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