Unprecedented Damages Award in Sexual Harassment Case

On May 22, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario awarded what is one of its largest damages awards to date. The facts that precipitated this result are both atrocious and a poignant reminder that sexual violence and harassment still persists in the workplace.

The case in question, O.P.T. v. Presteve Foods Ltd., involved O.P.T & M.P.T. - two sisters who came to Ontario from Mexico as temporary foreign workers to labour at a fish processing plant in Wheatley. In addition to bringing an application against the company, the sisters also named Mr. Jose Pratas, the owner of Presteve, as a personal respondent.

The allegations against Mr. Pratas were numerous and severe. They included: slapping M.P.T's bottom; touching M.P.T.'s breasts in his office; sexually propositioning M.P.T. in his car on several occasions; touching O.P.T.'s legs and vagina; forcing O.P.T. to touch his penis; fondling O.P.T.'s breasts and kissing her in his office at the processing plant; forcing oral sex upon O.P.T.; and forcing penetrative sex upon O.P.T. on three separate occasions. All of these events occurred under the ever-present threat that failing to cooperate with Mr. Pratas would result in him having the workers sent back to Mexico.

Ultimately, the Human Rights Tribunal found both Mr. Pratas and Presteve Foods jointly and severally liable. With regard to M.P.T. the Tribunal awarded $50,000 as compensation for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect. Particular emphasis was placed on M.P.T.'s vulnerability as a migrant worker and that she was forced to suffer repeated and unwanted sexual solicitations, under the continued threat of being removed from the country.

With regard to O.P.T., the Tribunal awarded $150,000 in compensation for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect, noting that:

The seriousness of this conduct is unprecedented in terms of this Tribunal's previous decisions. While there are previous cases in which a respondent has made unwanted sexual solicitations and advances toward an applicant, has touched an applicant's thighs and breasts, has forcibly hugged and kissed an applicant, and even one case where a respondent forced an applicant to touch his penis, the personal respondent's conduct towards O.P.T. in the instant case went far beyond that.

This decision comes more than seven years after the events took place, and follows criminal charges against Mr. Pratas, who pled guilty to assault in 2011. It highlights three important points:

  1. Sexual violence and harassment is not something anyone should have to tolerate in the workplace. The decision comes on the heels of significant focus by the provincial government on this issue, which has included a substantial media campaign to bring awareness to the issue of sexual harassment;
  2. The Human Rights Tribunal is ready and willing to award increasingly large damages awards - especially when the impugned conduct is carried out over a prolonged period of time by a person in a position of power and authority against a vulnerable individual; and
  3. It is a timely reminder that if you or someone you know is, or has been, subject to behaviour of this type you have readily-accessible legal protections to hold the perpetrators to account, and help prevent similar future events.

If you, or someone you know, has been the victim of harassment in the workplace, please contact us directly at: 613-238-4430 or info@vwlawyers.com.