Ontario school board found 'vicariously liable' in sexual abuse case
WARNING: This story contains details of sexual assault that some readers may find upsetting
A judge has found a school board in Ontario "vicariously liable" for the historical sexual abuse of a student at the hands of her teacher, in a decision that could set precedent for many other civil cases that blame school administrations for the abusive actions of teachers or other staff.
In his June 30 ruling, Justice David Salmers found the co-defendants, the former teacher and the Trillium Lakelands District School Board in Lindsay, Ont., were liable for sexual abuse that took place in the 1980s, ordering them to jointly pay more than $500,000 in damages.
"I believe it's a landmark decision because it establishes clearly that a school board in a public school setting, or a school in a private school setting, has to pay damages for sexual misconduct and violence against a student by one of its teachers," said Elizabeth Grace, a partner at Lerners, who represented the woman who was sexually abused.
The former teacher, Royce Galon Williamson, was found liable for the torts of assault, battery, sexual assault and sexual battery. Both Williamson and the board were found in breach of their fiduciary duties. The former teacher was ordered to pay an additional $100,000 plus interest in punitive damages.
Williamson has not been charged criminally nor found guilty of the alleged historical sexual assaults. While he was found liable in this civil action, the burden of proof is higher in a criminal case.
"The School Board is vicariously liable for Mr. Williamson's sexual misconduct. In these circumstances, apart from punitive damages, both Mr. Williamson and the School Board are jointly and severally liable for any injuries to the plaintiff," wrote Salmers in his 43-page decision.
Neither Williamson nor his lawyer showed up at the trial held in Cobourg, Ont., in the fall of 2019, but lawyers for the Trillium Lakelands District School Board, did appear.
The victim, a woman now in her 50s, says she was brutally sexually abused by her teacher at I.E. Weldon Secondary School in Lindsay, Ont., when she was 16.
CBC has agreed to protect her identity as she's a victim of historical sexual abuse. She has now reported the alleged crimes to police, but no charges have been laid against Williamson in this case.
In 1983, Williamson was the plaintiff's music teacher and band leader at Weldon.
According to court documents, the victim says Williamson became her mentor and confidant.
She felt very uncomfortable that he was there and was terrified that he would exact revenge on her.- Justice David Salmers
"He was a good, patient, caring listener. He was encouraging and supportive," the judge wrote in his decision. "Most importantly, she trusted him and felt secure when confiding in him."
The first assault happened in the teacher's vehicle when he offered her a ride home after a band trip. Instead, the woman said he stopped in a forested area and took off her clothes. She told the court this was the first time he sodomized her.
In the following months, there were several subsequent sexual assaults, some in his vehicle, others in his school office, the music room and a band practice room. She was confused and upset by the assaults.
To distance herself from the teacher, she eventually quit music and band. Her marks dropped and she became "withdrawn," according to some concerned teachers who contacted the guidance department in March 1984.
The teenager first detailed some of the abusive behavior to a guidance counsellor. Eventually, the principal and vice-principal became involved.
According to detailed files found at the school in 2017 and presented to the court, administrators believed the student's allegations in the spring of 1984, and the teacher was asked to resign.
But Williamson was allowed to continue teaching and leading the band for the next three months, until the school year ended.
"She felt very uncomfortable that he was there and was terrified that he would exact revenge on her," the judge wrote.
The victim asked that administrators keep the abuse confidential and asked them not to call police or her parents, so they did not.
No help for victim
The court found the teenager was given no psychological counselling or support from the school or board.
The next year she started drinking, was unable to finish Grade 12, and suffered from anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts due to the guilt and shame of the abuse.
Nothing was done to "assist her with emotional damage, including possible depression, shame, guilt, self-blame and embarrassment, that they ought to have thought might have been caused by Mr. Williamson's sexual misconduct," wrote the judge, noting no school employees took action to help her. "Their actions were directed at protecting … the school board."
In his ruling, the judge said the board breached its duty to the victim, first by failing to support her after she told administrators about the abuse, and second, by failing to immediately remove the teacher from the school.
"It's an important case. This is a helpful decision for other plaintiffs," said Loretta Merritt, a lawyer with Torkin Manes in Toronto. "This is very good news."
Merritt said to date, the Supreme Court of Canada has only decided vicarious liability in cases involving clergy and residential group homes, and while she notes this decision comes from a trial court and not the Supreme Court or Court of Appeal, it's still a persuasive decision.
"Vicarious liability is important because often negligence of a board is difficult to prove," said Merritt, who currently has outstanding abuse cases against the Toronto District School Board, the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board and the Upper Canada District School Board.
For years, lawyer Rob Talach has represented the victims of sexual abuse at institutions including churches and schools.
"In Ontario and most of Canada the school boards have not been on the hook to the same level as churches and scouting organizations and the like, for the sexual abuse committed by their employees," said Talach.
Currently, Talach's firm represents plaintiffs across the country, including several cases against the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and the estate of the former teacher and Bell High School basketball coach Don Greenham.
"I hope that this imposition of vicarious liability will really lead to prevention and greater preventative efforts by the boards…. What we're saying is, 'Boards, you're now responsible, absolutely responsible," Talach said. "'You've got to protect these kids.'"
It's also the victim's hope that future abuse might be prevented, according to her lawyer, Elizabeth Grace.
Salmers pointed out in his decision that the Trillium Lakelands District School Board still doesn't have clear policies regarding teachers driving students home from band practices or sporting events. He also pointed out that there are still no school board policies requiring windows in doors or closed offices.
"It will hopefully cause the school board to reflect and improve its practices," said Grace, who added she hopes the decision also allows her client to heal. "I hope it allows her to turn the page and move on in life with a sense that she's vindicated, and there aren't any of the reprisals that she's concerned about."
The Trillium Lakelands District School board had no comment on the judge's decision. An appeal is still possible.