‘Abusive, planned and deliberate’: B.C. court blasts China Southern Airlines’ conduct that tarnished worker’s reputation

B-1242, the first Boeing 787-9 delivered to China Southern, is in final approach to Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. Photo: Scarbor Siu/Unsplash

China Southern Airlines (CSA) has been ordered to pay a fired worker more than $200,000 — including $35,000 in aggravated damages for mental distress and $75,000 in punitive damages by the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

“CSA’s conduct was highly blameworthy. It was abusive, planned and deliberate,” the court said in a blistering rebuke, noting how profoundly harmful the conduct was to the worker’s reputation.

That’s on top of nearly $100,000 in general damages including 20 months’ notice and compensation for a $55 per month cell phone plan.

The worker, ZZ, a graduate of Beijing City University with degrees in hospitality and hotel management, relocated to Canada in 2002. She established herself in the airline industry and eventually became CSA’s first local employee at their Vancouver branch. Over the years, her responsibilities and income steadily increased.

However, in 2018, CSA underwent a reorganization under the leadership of a new general manager. This reorganization brought substantial changes to ZZ’s role and salary. In January 2020, she was placed on administrative leave and subsequently terminated by CSA, leading to severe stress and significant mental health issues.

Despite her efforts to secure alternative employment within the airline industry, ZZ’s professional reputation had been adversely affected by CSA’s actions. Eventually, she made a career shift, retraining as a pastry chef and finding employment in that field.

The court’s verdict

The court ruled ZZ’s termination by CSA was unjustified and occurred without any prior notice. Additionally, the allegations made against her by CSA were found to be baseless. The court acknowledged ZZ’s efforts to search for new employment, her successful retraining, and her eventual employment as a pastry chef.

Damages awarded

The court considered various factors when determining the damages owed to ZZ. These included:

Reasonable notice: The court found a reasonable notice period of 20 months was appropriate in this case. This period was used to calculate ZZ’s total general damages of $98,832, which encompassed salary, benefits, bonuses, and other forms of compensation. She was earning a salary of $4,800 per month at the time of dismissal.

Aggravated damages: These were awarded due to CSA’s breach of duty in the manner of dismissal. ZZ suffered from depression and anxiety as a result of CSA’s conduct, leading to an award of $35,000 in aggravated damages.

The court cited the fact ZZ was placed on “sudden and immediate administrative leave” without being told why. She was also ordered to leave the office and her belongings were searched in a “callous and humiliating manner.”

Among other things, CSA also notified other employers in the industry of her firing — “damaging her reputation,” the court said.

Punitive damages: Punitive damages were awarded to punish CSA for its egregious behavior. The court noted that CSA’s conduct was “harsh, vindictive, reprehensible, and malicious.”

The awarded compensatory and aggravated damages were deemed insufficient to achieve the goals of retribution, deterrence, and denunciation.

“CSA is a large corporation. (ZZ’s) compensatory award is trifling in comparison,” the court said. “Only the rebuke represented by a substantial monetary award beyond the other damages already awarded in this case will have the required ‘sting’ to deter CSA and other like-minded entities from similar misconduct in the future.”

It pointed to an earlier ruling against CSA, involving a different worker, that saw the awarding of $100,000 in punitive damages. While the behaviour ZZ was subjected to was even worse than that case, the court noted it did not extend for five years like it did in the earlier ruling.

As a result, CSA was ordered to pay $75,000 in punitive damages.

For more information, see Zheng v China Southern Airlines Company Limited, 2023 BCSC 1763 (CanLII)

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