Vancouver Burger King cook, fired for taking food after 24 years service, is awarded $46K

A B.C. Supreme Court Justice has awarded $46,000 to a longtime Burger King employee who was fired for taking home a fish sandwich, fries and drink without paying.

Usha Ram tells judge she had her manager's permission to take home a sandwich, fries and drink

Usha Ram has been awarded $46,000 after being fired from a Vancouver Burger King. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

A B.C. Supreme Court judge has awarded $46,000 to a longtime Burger King employee who was fired for taking home a fish sandwich, fries and orange pop without paying.

In her reasons for judgment, Justice Lisa Warren outlined how Usha Ram had finished working her shift as a cook at Burger King in downtown Vancouver on Dec. 27, 2013.

Warren said Ram had forgotten her wallet, so she asked restaurant general manager Tayyaba Salman if she could take home some food.

When Salman apparently agreed, Warren said, Ram stuffed a sandwich and some fries into a bag and poured herself a drink — a  misunderstanding that would wind up costing Ram her job.

Now, Ram has been awarded $21,000, which works out to a year's lost wages and $25,000 in aggravated damages.

"There is no doubt that the defendant's employees should not take food without authorization," wrote Warren in her ruling.

"However, it is my view that given the absence of any evidence of premeditation or attempted concealment, the absence of any formal discipline history, Ms. Ram's excellent and lengthy record working with Mr. Mohammed, the nature of her position and her economic vulnerability as a 55-year-old woman with little education who had worked as a fast food cook for 24 years, summary dismissal would not be a proportionate sanction." 

Language barrier

According to the court documents, Ram, who worked at various Burger King locations in B.C. for 24 years, struggles with English.

She and Salman were speaking in Hindi when Ram asked if she could take home some food.

Salman testified that she believed Ram only asked for a sandwich, not fries and a drink.

When Ram returned to work three days later, she was called into a meeting with Salman and restaurant co-owner Janif Mohammed.

Mohammed asked Ram if she took any free food, and Ram burst into tears.

Ram testified that as she was leaving the meeting, visibly upset and in plain view of her co-workers, restaurant co-owner Michael Lacombe asked her more than once if she had been fired.

Ram said the incident caused her mental distress, including shame, anxiety and depression.

Mohammed, who defended himself at trial, told the court he has a "zero-tolerance" policy for theft and "if people steal, they should get fired."

Court battle

Ram filed a lawsuit against the restaurant's owners, claiming there was no just cause for her dismissal and blaming them for her mental health issues.

Mohammed argued he was within his rights to fire Ram, because she had been caught stealing.

"There is no dispute that Ms. Ram took a fish sandwich, fries and a drink without paying for them," Warren wrote.

"The only question is whether the defendant has proved that she intended to steal the fries and the drink."

Warren also wrote that she believed Ram didn't intend to steal anything.

"I accept that she believed she was authorized by Ms. Salman to take both the sandwich and the fries, and that she believed it was consistent with the defendant's employee drink policy for her to take a free drink with her at the end of her shift," Warren wrote.

"This aspect of her evidence harmonizes with independent evidence and with common sense."

Warren also ruled that the incident caused Ram mental distress.

Lucky break

Ram's lawyer Lee Cowley said it was a fluke that the case made it to court.

He was talking to Ram about an unrelated matter when she mentioned that she had been fired.

Cowley said that when Ram explained what had happened, he advised her to take legal action.

"I think she was overwhelmed, and I think she really had no idea that she could do anything," he said.

"She has an eighth grade education, you have to remember that, so I think a lot of people in her situation think they're at the mercy of their employer and they have no recourse."