Legal Ease: Suing for material, moral, and punitive damages

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A person who is hurt by the wrongful conduct of someone else and suffers physical, emotional or financial harm may want to sue for damages.

Under the laws of Quebec, there are three kinds of damages that can be claimed: material, moral, and punitive.

Material damages are awarded to compensate a person for personal injury or for the material loss he has sustained. The amount of the loss must be proven and must result directly from the act committed by the person at fault.

Moral damages may be awarded when there is proof of psychological or emotional suffering. These are often granted in cases of discrimination, harassment, abuse of legal proceedings, and interference with a person’s dignity. It is difficult to place a dollar amount on such suffering and the court has discretion in evaluating the compensation to be awarded.

The purpose of punitive damages is not compensation but punishment of the person who committed the specific act and dissuasion, so that neither he nor others will repeat it. Damages are awarded as a punishment and deterrent. It is not the faulty or illegal act itself that will result in the awarding of punitive damages, but rather the intention to harm that accompanies it. The court has the power to impose damages only when a specific law exists stating that they can be awarded. Such provisions are found in the Quebec Code of Civil Procedure when the court feels the justice system has been misused, in certain Quebec Civil Code provisions, in the Quebec Consumer Protection Act and in the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The amount to be awarded is left to the discretion of the court, with the Civil Code providing that “they shall not exceed what is sufficient to fulfill their preventive purpose.”

In a recent Superior Court case, the court decided that the defendant, the owner of a long-term care residence, had abused the justice system. The judge applied the provisions of the Code of Procedure and ordered the owner to pay over $80,000 as material damages (mainly legal fees), $10,000 as moral damages, and $200,000 as punitive damages to the daughter of one of the residents. Because the daughter had complained publicly about the poor quality of care at the residence, the owner had filed legal proceedings against her for defamation. These were dismissed on the grounds that they were abusive and instituted solely to silence her. She then sued the owner for damages and won on the grounds that the owner’s proceedings had constituted an abusive lawsuit under the Quebec Code of Civil Procedure.

The Consumer Protection Act imposes numerous obligations on merchants, which, if violated, may result in the awarding of damages to the consumer. In addition to material and moral damages, the Act also gives the consumer the right to claim punitive damages. For example, when a merchant violated the Act by continuing to charge a customer after having received a notice of cancellation and it took almost a year for the merchant to correct the situation, the court awarded the consumer his proven expenses of $300. It also considered the delay and the attitude of the merchant and awarded the consumer an additional $3000 in punitive damages.

Many complaints are filed under the Charter of Rights either with the Human Rights Commission or with the courts, and many of the awards obtained include a provision for punitive damages. In one such case, a resident kept photographing his neighbour’s home night and day for over one year because he didn’t like his dogs. The neighbour was obliged to barricade his windows because of the camera flash at night, to stop using his backyard and finally, to put his house up for sale. The court held this as an unjustified intrusion into the victim’s right to privacy and violated his right to the enjoyment of his property, rights protected by both the Civil Code and the Charter of Rights. This caused the victim stress and feelings of insecurity. The Superior Court awarded moral damages of $7,500 and punitive damages of $2,500.

In another case of harassment by a neighbour inflicting material damage as well as verbal insults and threats of death uttered in the presence of the neighbour’s young child, the Human Rights Tribunal found the victims had been terrorized. The father was fearful and felt powerless to protect his family. This case was based on the provisions of the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which provide that any person guilty of any unlawful and intentional interference with any right recognized in the Charter may be condemned by the tribunal to punitive damages. One such right is freedom from harassment based on race. This was a case of racial discrimination. Each family member was awarded $15,000 in moral damages. Because the neighbour had already been convicted and punished by the criminal court, the Human Rights Tribunal awarded only a token amount of $1 as punitive damages.

No one can be aware of all the laws that exist to protect him or her. The Human Rights Commission was created by the Charter of Rights to consider cases where basic rights protected by the Charter are violated. The victim can complain to the Human Rights Commission. In other cases, a person who has incurred damages can consult with an attorney to learn what recourses are available and how much those recourses might cost.

The Bar of Montreal has a service that refers people to an attorney who will provide a one half-hour consultation at a very reasonable fee. The Bar can be reached at 514-866-2490. Legal aid is available for those who qualify.

4 Comments on "Legal Ease: Suing for material, moral, and punitive damages"

  1. Not in this F’n province. The court is malade.

  2. I am filing a claim in Small Claims Court for $6150 and wondered if $1000 in punitive damages is alright to ask for. Because of non-payment of a debt, I was forced into bankruptcy in June of this year. Is this grounds for damages?

    • (Not a lawyer (R)), but I would suggest you first consider whether or not you could prove it was intentional, and the debtor had means to pay, was aware of your financial issues and was thus reckless and wilful about it…and if those boxes are ticked than go for it AND the debt is irrefutably easy to prove. I would add also that you can seek punitive damages equal to (and often greater) than the compensatory and material damages.

  3. I live in Montreal.’d like to know if some one is harassing you?Telling lies about you and making you feel like outcast in your own community do you have legal rights about that?Is making false accusations about some one to other people a crime?Please help.

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