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EXEMPLARY OR PUNITIVE DAMAGES - Where high-handed, malicious, arbitrary or highly reprehensible misconduct

Wednesday, May 20, 2020 @ 6:55 AM  

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Appeal by the defendant from trial judgment awarding the respondent damages for unjust enrichment and $10,000 in punitive damages. The appellant was married to the respondent’s son. In 1999, at the suggestion of the son, the respondent had an addition built to his home where she then resided. The trial judge found the respondent had spent at least $25,000 on materials to have the apartment constructed. When the son suddenly died in 2010, the appellant became the sole owner of the home. In 2014 the relationship between the parties deteriorated when the respondent permitted her grandson and great-grandson to move in with her. The appellant then told the respondent she wanted to sell the house and that the respondent had to move out. The appellant then engaged in a sustained campaign of harassment and the respondent, then 82, moved out in 2017. The trial judge found that the oral agreement was for the respondent to remain in the apartment as long as she wished. He awarded the respondent rent on the apartment she moved into after leaving appellant’s home. The appellant argued the trial judge erred in finding unjust enrichment or in his assessment of remedy. 

HELD: Appeal dismissed. The trial judge did not err in finding that the apartment built by the respondent added significant value to the appellant’s house. The judge made no clear and material error in finding enrichment to her or finding that the reasonable expectation of the parties was that the respondent would build and remain in her apartment until she could no longer do so. The apartment was intended to be the respondent’s home until she left when it would belong to her son and daughter-in-law. The ultimate benefit was not simply the money expended, but the enjoyment of the fruits of that expense first for the respondent and later for her son. Even if the exchange of mutual benefits favoured the appellant, that advantage would have to yield to the parties’ reasonable expectations that having built the apartment, the respondent would live in it rent free. The judge’s assessment of the loss to the respondent and the benefit to the appellant best reflected the reality that the apartment was intended to be the respondent’s home for the foreseeable future. As the judge found, the respondent was induced to leave her home and move in with her son and daughter-in-law. She relied to her detriment on the promise she could live, free of rent and free of mortgage payments, closer to her family for as long as she wanted. The real loss to the respondent and the gain to the appellant was the premature acquisition of the apartment the respondent built. The relief granted was available in light of the cause of action pleaded and the evidence led. The judge did not err in granting the relief awarded. The punitive damages were warranted, considering the appellant’s shocking mid-winter attempts to evict her elderly mother-in-law.

Reid v. Reid, [2020] N.S.J. No. 128, Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, P. Bryson, M.J. Hamilton and J.E. Fichaud JJ.A., March 24, 2020. Digest No. TLD-May182020004