Ex-pilot's suit sets record for damages

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Ex-pilot's suit sets record for damages

Post by Scylla »

From the moment Rick Fennimore first climbed into an airplane at the age of 16, he knew he wanted to fly.

By the end of Grade 12, while his friends were still dreaming about owning their first cars, he had his pilot's licence. He dropped out of university to pursue flying full time.

By the time he was in his 30s, he was piloting Boeing 727s, the captain on flights carrying as many as 180 passengers. A few years later, he was flying professional sports team such as the Toronto Raptors and the Toronto Blue Jays. He was living his dream.

But one phone call would ultimately cost him everything.

In November 2001, Mr. Fennimore was fired by his employer, SkyService Airlines, after they claimed they received a call that alleged Mr. Fennimore was seen at a party with a drink or glass in his hand less than seven hours before a flight, breaking Canadian law as well as the company's policy.

The allegations, which were made in front of colleagues and later repeated when he applied for government employment insurance and again to a potential employer, were never proven.

In fact, Mr. Fennimore says, he never even attended the party.

In an instant, he went from earning $100,000 as a pilot to financial and personal ruin, losing everything he had worked so hard to achieve.

Now, after seven years of fighting to clear his name, the 47-year-old former pilot finally found vindication Thursday when an Ottawa jury awarded him $3 million after determining SkyService Airlines and their chief pilot, Robert Walz, defamed him.

It's the single highest defamation award in Canada's history, more than doubling the previous largest award of $1.4 million.

When the jury returned their decision after eight hours of deliberation, Mr. Fennimore, who is now an Ottawa IT consultant, could control his emotions no longer.

"I started crying. It was like having a 700-pound gorilla taken off your back after years of fighting," he said.

While stunned by the amount of damages the jury awarded him, Mr. Fennimore said there is no question in his mind that he deserves it.

"People have absolutely no idea what it's like to have people say 'you can no longer do what you spent your entire life wanting to do'," he said.

"You can talk about it, but it doesn't really mean anything unless you are in that position.

"You have this feeling everything you ever lived for is gone. There's nothing left."

The amount was awarded to Mr. Fennimore after the jury heard evidence that he had lost more than $800,000 in wages in the seven years since he was fired. The jury also heard the amount of lost wages would exceed $3 million assuming Mr. Fennimore worked as a pilot until he was 65.

Yesterday, the lawyer for SkyService Airlines and Mr. Walz argued that trial judge Dennis Power should overturn the amount of damages since there was "no evidence" to support such a high award.

Lorne Honickman argued the jury failed to follow Judge Power's instructions to reach an award that is "reasonable" to the plaintiff and defendant. Calling the amount awarded "manifestly unreasonable" and "shockingly excessive," Mr. Honickman asked Judge Power to overturn the amount and reach his own decision on damages.

While recognizing the amount the jury awarded was "generous," Judge Power ruled there was nothing improper about his directions to the jury.

"In my view, the decision of the jury is sustainable in law," he said, upholding the jury's ruling.

Following the judge's ruling, Mr. Honickman said his clients will be reviewing the judgment before deciding whether to appeal the verdict and amount of damages awarded.

"This trial required the trial judge to make several rulings, in very complicated areas of law regarding what the jury could consider. As such, all of this may require a review by the court of appeal," Mr. Honickman said.

During the trial, court heard evidence that Mr. Walz fired Mr. Fennimore after receiving a phone call accusing him of drinking at a Halifax party hosted by Alexander Keith's brewery in October 2001.

According to Mr. Walz, the caller, Dennis Figurido, who was employed in Halifax as a fixed base operator, alleged that passengers saw Mr. Fennimore with a drink in his hand less than seven hours before a flight.

Mr. Figurido testified during the trial that he never made those statements.

In addition to the complaint about drinking before flying, Mr. Walz also claimed that Mr. Fennimore could not be contacted by the operations centre on more than one occasion, showed up late for more than one flight and was rude and abusive with operations staff.

The allegations were made in front of other pilots. When Mr. Fennimore, who had previously been a representative for the Airline Pilots Association, asked for an opportunity to refute the allegations, he was denied and summarily dismissed.

According to Mr. Fennimore, he was never approached about any wrongdoing prior to his dismissal.

"None of it was true. There was never any basis to any of it," said Mr. Fennimore, who had been employed by the airline for less than seven months at the time of his dismissal.

A pilot for 20 years, Mr. Fennimore had joined SkyService in April 2001 after flying cargo and charter flights for six years with a Kelowna airline. He had also worked flying passengers with Royal Airlines and Greyhound Air.

When he was hired by SkyService, he was supposed to fly for the start-up Roots Air, but the airline shut down after only six weeks. After that, he flew charter flights for SkyService instead.

After he was dismissed, Mr. Fennimore spent two years searching for a job. He was eventually offered one in July 2002 with Keewatin Air, but the offer was withdrawn. The jury found Mr. Walz repeated the allegations stemming from the Alexander Keith's party.

A job offer from another airline, JetsGo, in March 2003 was also withdrawn. Other job interviews went nowhere, leading Mr. Fennimore to believe he was "blackballed."

In the meantime, Mr. Fennimore's life dissolved. With no income, he was forced to sell his four bedroom split level home in Caledonia, near Hamilton.

After moving in with his brother in Ottawa for a few months, Mr. Fennimore returned to P.E.I. to live with his mother.

"It was very demoralizing. I knew as time went on it would be more and more unlikely (that I would fly again)," he said. "Once you've been out of the cockpit for roughly 24 months it becomes much more difficult to get back in."

Living off a few hundred thousand dollars in savings, Mr. Fennimore eventually went back to school, getting his IT certification in 2005.

"The first couple of years were the hardest, accepting my career was over," he said.

Mr. Fennimore bought a retail store in P.E.I. after graduating, but the store did poorly and he closed it. He now works as an IT consultant providing residential and small business support in Ottawa.

Mr. Fennimore would be earning $152,000 a year plus benefits if he were still flying today. In his first year as an IT consultant, he earned about $30,000.

He moved back to Ottawa last March, and now lives in his sister's basement.

Mr. Fennimore said his career as a professional pilot is over.

"I won't fly again, not commercially anyway," said Mr. Fennimore. "I don't think I could. I don't really think that is possible."

Mr. Fennimore's lawyer, Keith MacLaren, said he believes the "unprecedented" harm caused by the defamatory statements is reflected in the amount the jury awarded his client.

"It is a reasonable award because it compensates him for the loss of his career," said Mr. MacLaren. "Other (defamation) awards are essentially trying to compensate people for the damage to their reputation and their hurt feelings. In those other cases where the awards were less, they didn't lose their careers."

Mr. MacLaren said unlike other jobs, the airline industry is highly specialized.

"It's a small industry. It's the type of industry where word gets around fast," he said.

Mr. MacLaren said he anticipates an appeal of the decision.

But no matter what happens, Mr. MacLaren said nothing can change the fact that Mr. Fennimore has finally cleared his name.

"The court of appeal can never take that vindication away from him, no matter what they decide."
Airplanes usually kill you quickly - a woman takes her time.
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