Court ruled that schools operated as 'total institution' liable for punitive damages

Children in 'total institutions' risk emotional harm and developing psychological difficulties

Court ruled that schools operated as 'total institution' liable for punitive damages
Excessive discipline may be abusive practices that inflict emotional harm upon students

The Court of Appeal for Ontario has upheld an award of punitive damages in favour of students subjected to emotional harm by a school operated as a “total institution.”

In Cavanaugh v. Grenville Christian College, 2021 ONCA 755, Cavanaugh and his co-plaintiffs (the Class) were former boarding students of Grenville Christian College (Grenville) between 1973 and 1997. They sued Grenville for abusive practices, including corporal punishment, public humiliation, and other excessive discipline. The trial judge ruled in favour of the Class, having found systemic negligence on the part of Grenville and that Grenville breached both their fiduciary duty and duty of care.

Grenville appealed, focusing largely on the trial judge’s conclusion on systemic negligence. In particular, they asserted that the “total institution” concept advanced by the expert witness was a modern construct not recognized in 1973 to 1997. Having been introduced in 2000, Grenville argued that they could not have known that they were operating a “total institution” and therefore harm was not foreseeable.

The appellate court disagreed.

Contrary to Grenville’s assertion, the appellate court ruled that Grenville’s characterization as a “total institution” did not lead the trial judge to conclude that systemic negligence was established. Rather, it formed part of her analysis on whether Grenville’s treatment of the Class fell below the standard of care for students at the time, said the court. The trial judge considered the expert witness’s testimony that children in total institutions are subject to “disconnect, degradation and powerlessness” and thus are at risk of emotional harm, said the court.

The trial judge anchored her finding of systemic negligence when she identified certain practices imposed by Grenville and concluded that they were not “isolated incidents of excessive discipline,” but were in fact part of the school’s “culture” since they were “aligned with its philosophy and embedded in its operational policies to enforce its norms, rules and expectations,” said the court.

The expert witness further testified that “many of the Class members experienced physical and emotional abuse, including spurning, terrorizing, isolating or exploiting, that left these individuals at risk of developing psychological difficulties,” said the court.

“[Grenville] admitted that they owed a duty of care to the Class members to take reasonable steps, among other things, to protect them from actionable physical, psychological or emotional harm,” said the court. But having found that Grenville lacked policies or controls to ensure such protection, the trial judge concluded that Grenville breached its fiduciary duty to the Class, said the court.

As such, the award for punitive damages were warranted, said the court.

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