Damages for Injury to Dignity in Human Rights Cases

By Susanna Allevato Quail

Clients thinking about filing a human rights complaint, or on the receiving end of one, generally want the answer to that one, bottom-line question: how much is this claim worth? How much am I going to get, or going to have to pay?

When the claim deals with specific losses like wages or medical costs, that number can be calculated. But nearly every claim also includes a component of damages for "injury to dignity, feelings and self respect or any of them". That's a very different question: how much are hurt feelings worth?

Recent decisions of the BC Human Rights Tribunal have begun to lay out an analytical framework that counsel and parties can use to assess the facts of a case and anticipate the possible range of a damage award. These decisions provide lists of factors that are roughly similar but not identical. A review of these lists reveals that there are several underlying concerns that are repeated throughout, even where they are not made explicit. I encourage you to review the cited decisions directly, but here is a summary of the factors identified in each:

Gichuru v Law Society of BC (No 9), 2011 BCHRT 185

  • Nature of the discrimination
  • Time period and frequency
  • Vulnerability of the complainant
  • Impact on complainant
  • Totality of relationship

Applied in Dunkley v UBC, 2015 BCHRT 100Davis v Sandringham Care Centre, 2015 BCHRT 148; Brar v BCVMA, 2015 BCHRT 151.

PN v FR, 2015 BCHRT 60

  • Nature of the harassment (verbal or physical)
  • Degree of aggressiveness and physical contact
  • Ongoing nature and time period
  • Frequency
  • Age of victim
  • Vulnerability of victim
  • Psychological impact on victim

Garneau v Buy-Rite, 2015 BCHRT 77

  • Nature of the harassment (verbal or physical)
  • Degree of aggressiveness
  • Ongoing nature
  • Frequency
  • Vulnerability of victim

Notwithstanding these slightly divergent lists of factors, the Tribunal in all these cases is concerned with the same four general categories: qualitative assessment of the discrimination; quantitative assessment of the discrimination; the vulnerability of the complainant; and the impact on the victim.

A) Qualitative Assessment of the Discrimination

The Tribunal considers what happened and how severe it was. Depending whether the case involves harassment, a discriminatory policy, or some other form of discrimination, different elements may be considered, such as physical contact or the degree of aggressiveness. 

The purpose of this inquiry is not to determine how severely to punish the respondent. Damages pursuant to s. 37(3)(d)(iii) of the Code are compensatory, not punitive: Davis, supra, para. 367. However, it is legitimate for the Tribunal to consider the severity of the discriminatory conduct for the purpose of assessing its impact on the complainant: Silver Campsites Ltd. v. James, 2013 BCCA 292.

B) Quantitative Assessment of the Discrimination

The Tribunal also considers how often and for how long the discrimination occurred - that is, how much did it happen? Again, the purpose is not to determine how bad the respondent was and how badly to punish them, but how severe the impact was on the complainant.

C) Vulnerability of the Complainant

The Tribunal looks at any special factors that make the complainant particularly vulnerable. These may include personal characteristics of the complainant such as disability or age that can create a power imbalance between the parties. These may also include external factors like the complainant's dependency on the respondent for employment, or vulnerabilities arising from living arrangements, financial exigencies, or immigration status.

D) Impact on the Complainant

The Tribunal assesses the psychological and physiological impacts on the complainant including injuries as well as stress-related symptoms like depression, anxiety, nervousness, insomnia, or headaches. The Tribunal also considers impacts on the complainant's life circumstances: was the complainant delayed entering a profession? Did the complainant’s relationship with family or ability to care for family members suffer? Was the complainant forced into undesirable living arrangements? 


These factors are implicit in the case law and increasingly codified as the Tribunal refines and reiterates the factors it considers when it assesses damages for injury to dignity, feelings, and self-respect. Though putting a price tag on dignity and emotions is always a difficult adjudicative task, BC human rights law is moving in the direction of a more consistent standard that allows predictability and coherence in awards.