Québec (Comm. des droits de la personne) c. Coutu (No 2) (1995), 26 C.H.R.R. D/31 (Trib.Qué.) [Fr. 24 pp.]: Exploitation of disabled persons in care facility -- nature and purpose of human rights legislation -- care facility policy discriminatory for economic reasons -- compensation for wilful exploitation and injury to dignity and self-respect

Keywords: DISABILITY -- exploitation of disabled persons in care facility -- HUMAN RIGHTS -- nature and purpose of human rights legislation -- FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS -- invasion of physical security and dignity -- BUSINESS NECESSITY -- care facility policy discriminatory for economic reasons -- DAMAGES -- compensation for wilful exploitation and injury to dignity and self-respect -- COMPLAINTS -- timeliness in filing complaint

Summary: The Human Rights Commission has brought a claim against Mr. Coutu and companies under his control seeking $2,060,000 in moral and exemplary damages resulting from the exploitation and violation of the rights of residents of the Centre d'ccueil Pavillon Saint-Théophile which occurred between January 1, 1984, and March 31, 1988.

Over a period of many years, until March 31, 1988, Pavillon Saint-Théophile administered a private nursing home with a permit issued by the health and Social Services Department of Quebec. The permit in question authorized Pavillon Saint-Théophile to operate a nursing home with eighty-eight residents. The residents were all handicapped and social welfare recipients.

In 1985 complaints were made regarding the operations and services being offered at Pavillon Saint-Théophile. In 1986 the Comité provincial des malades also lodged a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission regarding (1) the use of the residents' monthly benefits for personal expenses; (2) the residents' unpaid work, and (3) the general living conditions and services at the centre. On March 31, 1988, the Health and Social Services Department placed the centre under trusteeship and suspended Mr. Coutu's operations. In June 1988, the Quebec Human Rights Commission resumed its investigation, which had been interrupted by certiorari proceedings before the Superior Court. On January 24, 1991, following its investigation, the Human Rights Commission concluded that the residents of Pavillon Saint-Théophile have been the victims of exploitation and proposed that measures be taken to provide redress.

The Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms recognizes that every person has a right to personal security, inviolability and freedom (s. 1); every person has a right to the safeguard of his dignity, honour and reputation (s. 4); every person has a right to privacy (s. 5) and a right to the peaceful enjoyment and free disposition of his property (s. 6) and every person has a right to full and equal recognition and exercise of his human rights without distinction, exclusion or preference based on handicap (s. 10). In addition, the Charter forbids all forms of exploitation aimed at the aged and the handicapped. The Tribunal finds that the legislation does not only address economic exploitation, but also concerns physical, psychological, and social or moral exploitation.

In response to one of the arguments raised by the respondents, the Tribunal finds that neither the status of the centre nor alleged budgetary constraints can in any manner justify the exploitation of handicapped residents in a centre. The Tribunal also rejects the respondent’s arguments regarding the Commission's alleged inability to sue. From the outset, the Commission's investigation was aimed at all the companies under Mr. Coutu's control as well as Mr. Coutu himself, and the Commission therefore has the necessary capacity and standing to bring the present case before the Tribunal.

The evidence regarding the use of the residents' monthly social security benefits showed, for instance, that the monthly bills for goods and services such as haircuts, the purchase of clothing, of personal care products and films as well as bills for social activities and outings bore no relation to the costs actually incurred by the centre. As for the residents' forced labour, the evidence showed that Pavillon Saint-Théophile forced the residents to perform certain duties required for the operation of the institution without pay. The Tribunal finds that there was nothing to justify such exploitation. Even if one were to accept the argument that regular work brought certain advantages to the residents, this could not in anyway justify exploitation on the part of the employer who unscrupulously benefited from such labour without ever paying any form of remuneration.

The evidence also showed that staff members lacked the qualifications required to work in such a centre. Mr. Coutu showed a preference for individuals and employees whose only qualifications rested on family ties. The Tribunal also finds that the residents were subjected, on a daily basis, to behaviour and situations which violated their rights: staff members showed contempt and a lack of respect towards the residents; the residents were regularly treated as if they were children and often placed into humiliating situations which did not respect their right to privacy. The residents were deprived of their rights by outdated institutional practices that were put into place and tolerated by the administration. Moreover, the violation of the residents' rights by Mr. Coutu and the complaints under his control was both intentional and deliberate. The Tribunal rejects the argument that the residents or others consented to such treatment. There can be no consent or agreement with respect to exploitation.

The Tribunal finds, on the issue of prescription, that the claims against Entreprises Emelda Coutu, 116467 Canada and Fondation Jean Coutu were subject to the two-year prescription period generally applied in cases involving delictual liability. On the other had, the claims against Mr. Coutu, Pavillon Saint-Théophile and Centre récréatif J.C. were based on a failure to adhere to their contractual obligations which is governed by a thirty-year prescription period.

The Tribunal dismisses the arguments presented by the complaints regarding the suspension of prescription, finding that none of the parties involved were in a position which made it absolutely impossible for them to act at an earlier time. The last illegal act occurred on March 31, 1988, and the present suit was filed only at the end of August 1991. Consequently, the Tribunal finds that the claims against Entreprises Emelda Coutu, 116467 Canada and Fondation Jean Coutu were prescribed when the application was filed and the claims against these companies are therefore dismissed.

The Tribunal orders Jean Coutu, Centre d'ccueil Pavillon Saint-Théophile Inc. and Centre récréatif J.C. pour déficients mentaux to pay the sum of $1,413,300 for moral damages suffered by the residents of Pavillon Saint-Théophile and the additional sum of $141,330 for punitive damages, with interest from the date of the present judgment and costs.

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