Court upholds $2.1-million award to Beer Store worker


From Friday's Globe and Mail

May 22, 2008 at 8:20 PM EDT

A $2.1-million jury award to a Brewer's Retail Inc. employee who was falsely accused of pilfering $160 was richly deserved in light of the company's 13-year “charade of duplicity and deception,” the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled Thursday.

It said that Douglas McNeil was wrongly prosecuted for theft, based on surveillance videotapes the company supplied to police, while suppressing other videotape segments that would have exonerated him.

“The aggravated and punitive damages awarded by the jury reflect the jury's sense of outrage at BRI's conduct and the enormity of the harm it concluded McNeil had suffered,” Madam Justice Karen Weiler said.

“By its verdict, it is apparent that the jury viewed BRI as a calculating and insensitive company that was prepared, for its own purposes, to see an innocent man convicted of a crime it knew he did not commit.”

The jury award is one of the largest ever rendered in a malicious prosecution lawsuit. It was also a particularly flagrant case of corporate wrongdoing to an innocent employee, she said.

“Shocked and devastated by his arrest, proclaimed publicly as a common thief, terminated from his employment, forced to go on unemployment insurance, forced to sell the family home and move to an apartment, forced to endure the anguish, stress and uncertainty of a thirteen-year ordeal – these are but some of the consequences McNeil was exposed to by reason of BRI's callous and malicious conduct,” Judge Weiler said.

Brewer's Retail Inc. is a brewer-owned company in Ontario more commonly known as the Beer Store.

Kirk Stevens, a lawyer for Mr. McNeil, said in an interview Thursday that his client had a perfectly legitimate explanation for removing money from the till.

A relative had asked him to change $140 in U.S. currency into Canadian dollars, Mr. Stevens said. He said that a portion of videotape police were not given depicted him doing precisely that.

In a second episode, Mr. McNeil could be seen removing two $10-bills and two loonies from the till, which he then split with a co-worker.

The exculpatory portion of the tape showed him taking $22 from his pocket and putting it into the till.

Mr. Stevens said Thursday that, at one point, a police investigator asked the company whether there was any exculpatory videotape, but it was not provided to him.

“The facts here confirm that the police and the Crown relied wholly on BRI, which actively and deliberately misled them,” Judge Weiler remarked.

In a 1994 memo, company officials expressed concerns about the quality of evidence it had given police. The memo indicated officials were reluctant to come clean about the problem they had created because it could result in “long-lasting damage to [its] credibility.”

Judge Weiler noted that part of the jury award was for Mr. McNeil's wife, Terry, who “saw her husband transformed from a ‘happy-go-lucky' companion into a man who was ‘eaten up inside.'”