Can you fire an employee for a serious one-off mistake?

The decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal in a recent case involving an employee driving while impaired has ramifications for employers who terminate employees for one-off offenses. HRM investigates.

Can you fire an employee for a serious one-off mistake?
Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the termination for cause of a long-service employee who was caught driving while drunk.
It can be a difficult fight for HR to prove just cause for a single, isolated incident, especially for a long-service employee, but a recent court decision shows it’s not always impossible.
In Dziecielski v. Lighting Dimensions Inc., 2012 ONSC 1877, an employee with 23 years of service drove his employer’s vehicle, without authorization, while intoxicated.  The employee was responsible for a serious accident which destroyed the company vehicle and left him with life threatening injuries.  
It was the first incident in the employees record, but the employer chose to fire for cause.  As part of the terms of his employment, the employee signed an Employee Handbook that defined the consumption of alcohol off-premises while conducting business as a “major breach” that could result in termination.
The original judge acknowledged the difficulty of  proving just cause in these circumstances, but cited the serious nature of the incident as reasonable grounds for termination. The fact that driving drunk is a criminal offence, that the employee must have known that driving after four beers was serious misconduct, and that the employer was put at risk for being found liable to third parties all factored in his decision to uphold the termination. The Court of Appeal upheld his decision.
What can employers take away from this decision?
“It appears that the court is signalling a more stringent approach towards driving while intoxicated in the workplace,” employment lawyer Asha Rampersad, from CC Partners, said. “While this is promising for employers, it is important to note that each case is decided on an individualized basis, and employers should ensure that they have conducted a thorough investigation when asserting just cause for termination.”


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