It is a family’s worst nightmare to learn that a loved one has been the victim of abuse, especially when it takes place in a setting of trust and care. Many cases are kept under the radar, so families may not learn of the incident until much later, if ever. It can have a devastating impact on a person’s life and cause lasting psychological injuries.

In the recent case of Cavanaugh v Grenville Christian College, former boarding students that attended a private school in Brockville, Ontario, between 1973 and 1997 brought a personal injury class action case against the school and its former headmasters alleging abusive practices, including corporal punishment, public humiliation and other forms of excessive discipline. 

At trial, Justice Leiper of the Superior Court of Justice of Ontario found that the school had breached its fiduciary duty and duty of care, and ordered punitive damages to deter and denounce the serious conduct. The defendants appealed to the Court of Appeal for Ontario. 

Abusive conduct at the school

The trial judge accepted evidence that a range of abusive behaviour took place at the school. This included harsh discipline such as enforced isolation and excessively lengthy and degrading forms of work duties, as well as corporal punishment including arbitrary and excessive paddling and other forms of physical contact that constituted assault. 

Some students were taken to a boiler room and shown furnace flames while being told that they would go to hell if they did not behave. Students were also subjected to public humiliation at assemblies and sexualized abuse, such as requiring sexual confessions, demeaning female students through name-calling, and vilifying homosexuality.

The defendants conceded that they owed certain duties to the plaintiffs:

  • A duty of care to take reasonable steps to care for and ensure the students’ safety, to protect them from actionable physical, psychological and emotional harm and to provide them with a safe and secure learning environment; and 
  • A fiduciary duty, which is a special type of duty where one party is responsible for looking after the best interests of another party. It exists in certain types of relationships, including student/teacher. In this case, the defendants owed a duty to the students to refrain from harmful acts involving disloyalty, bad faith or self-interest.

Systemic negligence found at trial

Justice Leiper ruled in favour of the plaintiffs. Her Honour accepted the plaintiffs’ expert evidence that the school operated as a “total institution” – a place where children live apart from their families for extended periods, rules govern almost all aspects of daily life, students have little say about how the rules are administered, there are arbitrary or unpredictable orders and appeals are inhibited. There was a risk of disconnection, degradation or powerlessness experienced by children in the care of such institutions. 

Her Honour decided that the school was systemically negligent because of its practices. Her Honour identified aspects of the school’s practices that breached the standard of care and concluded that the practices and harms were systemic. Justice Leiper accepted that the defendants had breached their fiduciary obligations to the students through their harmful disciplinary practices and the failure to have any policies or procedures in place to investigate abuse of students.

Punitive damages awarded

Justice Leiper concluded that punitive damages were appropriate. Punitive damages are an exceptional award used to deter and denounce bad conduct. They are awarded in addition to compensatory damages to punish a defendant who has engaged in misconduct that constitutes a marked departure from ordinary standards of decent behaviour.

Her Honour stated: 

The evidence at trial established a 24-year course of conduct which amounted to a marked departure from the educational standards in Ontario. Some students ran away, hid or asked to be taken out of the school. Others were not believed or suffered in silence. I have concluded that the evidence of maltreatment and the varieties of abuse perpetrated on students’ bodies and minds in the name of the…values of submission and obedience was class-wide and decades-wide. The plaintiffs have established that this conduct departed from the standards of the day.

Children were particularly vulnerable to emotional harm under the circumstances 

Justice of Appeal van Rensburg, with whom Justices of Appeal Juriansz and Sossin agreed, dismissed the defendants’ appeal. Her Honour decided that, contrary to the school’s claims, this was not a case where the trial judge found systemic negligence-based only on abusive practices directed at individual students. 

The defendants argued that the trial judge erred in using expert evidence to conclude that the school engaged in systemic negligence because the expert relied on the “total institution” concept, which is a modern construct from after 1997. 

Justice of Appeal van Rensburg rejected this argument, finding that the trial judge did not conclude that there was systemic negligence because the defendants were running a “total institution”. This simply meant that the children were particularly vulnerable to emotional harm by their caregivers because they were away from their parents and dependent on the school for all aspects of their care. Her Honour rejected the assertion that because the term may not have been used during the relevant period, the school could not have known that they were operating such an institution and therefore that the harm was not foreseeable. The conclusion that the school operated as a “total institution” did not lead directly to the conclusion that systemic negligence was established.

Contact the personal injury lawyers at Tierney Stauffer LLP, serving clients in Ottawa, Arnprior, Cornwall, Kingston and North Bay

If you or a loved one is suffering as a victim of sexual abuse, you are not alone. We can support you by providing knowledgeable and compassionate legal counsel. We’ll ensure you fully understand the situation and process at hand, and that you’re comfortable at every stage. Contact us online or at 1-888-799-8057 to set up a free consultation with one of the experienced personal injury lawyers at Tierney Stauffer LLP.

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