In Anderson v. Molon 2020 BCSC 1247, the injured claimant brought a claim for personal injury for sexual abuse.  Claims were made against the priest in sexual battery who abused her and against the diocese in vicarious liability and negligence for failing to take steps to protect her from harm when it knew of the abuse.

The sexual abuse started after the injured claimant was hired as an elementary teacher at a Catholic school in Kamloops.  At the time, she was 26 years-old and a devout Catholic.  Grieving the death of her father, she turned to a priest who was living at the parish for comfort, guidance and care.  Instead of providing this to her, this priest took advantage of her vulnerable state and repeatedly sexually assaulted her.  The diocese became aware of the “predatory instincts” of the priest and his “complete lack of moral rectitude”.  Despite this, the diocese did not take any steps to prevent more abuse at the hands of the priest and instead took active steps to silence it.

As a result of the sexual abuse, the injured claimant suffered severe mental injuries, including low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, feelings of worthlessness, and PTSD.  These injuries, she argued, diminished her quality of life and deprived her of the chance of a successful career.  She claimed damages for pain and suffering, loss of income, special damages and future care costs.  In addition, she claimed punitive damages against both the priest and the diocese.

In awarding the injured claimant $275,000.00 for pain and suffering along with aggravated damages, the trial judge stated:

[217]     In the case at bar, the plaintiff was a young woman at a vulnerable time in her life. The abuse she suffered was protracted and ongoing. The plaintiff’s encounters with Fr. Molon were degrading and highly invasive. Fr. Molon occupied a position of trust and authority. He abused that trust to exploit the plaintiff repeatedly over months. When confronted with this misconduct, the only evidence before the court suggests he was wholly indifferent and dismissive of the ramifications of what he was doing.

[218]     Even taking the plaintiff’s pre-existing condition into account, I find the assaults had a profound effect upon the plaintiff’s psychological well-being. Fr. Molon’s abuse caused the plaintiff pain, anguish, grief, and humiliation. It deeply affected her self-confidence. She has carried these wounds throughout her life.

[219]     The present circumstances resemble those of the cases cited by the plaintiff much more closely than those cited by the defendant. In my view, an award of $275,000, inclusive of aggravated damages, is appropriate in light of the aggravating factors described above, and the severe effect of the abuse on the plaintiff’s well-being and quality of life, making due allowance for the plaintiff’s pre-existing condition.

In relation to the claim for punitive damages, the trial judge noted that punitive damages are an exceptional remedy that are unlike any other form of damages.  Their purpose is not to compensate, but to punish.  Similar to a criminal penalty, punitive damages are driven by a logic of retribution, denunciation and deterrence.  An award should only be made in response to conduct that “harsh, vindictive, reprehensible and malicious in nature” as well as “extreme in its nature and such that by any reasonable standard it is deserving of full condemnation and punishment”.  Punitive damages must be tailored to the defendant’s culpability.  As stated by the trial judge:

[225]    Punitive damages must be tailored to the defendant’s culpability. In Whiten, Binnie J. identified the following factors in assessing the blameworthiness of a defendant’s conduct at para. 113:

(a)        whether the conduct was planned and deliberate;

(b)        the intent and motive of the defendant;

(c)        whether the defendant persisted in the outrageous conduct over a lengthy period of time;

(d)        whether the defendant concealed or attempted to cover up its misconduct;

(e)        the defendant’s awareness that what he or she was doing was wrong;

(f)         whether the defendant profited from its misconduct; and

(g)        whether the interest violated by the misconduct was known to be deeply personal or irreplaceable.

[226]    In addition, an award of punitive damages must be:

(a)        proportionate to the degree of vulnerability of the plaintiff;

(b)        proportionate to the harm or potential harm directed specifically at the plaintiff;

(c)        proportionate to the need for deterrence;

(d)        proportionate, even after taking into account the other penalties, both civil and criminal, which have been or are likely to be inflicted on the defendant for the same misconduct;

(e)        proportionate to the advantage wrongfully gained by a defendant from the misconduct

In considering these factors along with the conduct of the priest and the diocese, punitive damages were awarded in the amount of $150,000.00.

To read more about this sexual abuse case, see the article in the Vancouver Sun.

Punitive damages are also available against insurance companies.  See our past blog post on punitive damage awards against insurance companies.