Court approves $2.5 million class action settlement agreement involving hockey coach

A $2.5 million class action settlement agreement reached between the victims of a former hockey coach and his employer, the City of Westmount, was approved by a Superior Court judge.

John Garland, a former Superintendent of the Westmount’s Parks and Recreation Department between 1953 and 1987, is believed to have sexually abused children and teenagers in his care.

The class action alleged that Westmount “turned a blind eye” to Garland’s “disturbing and illegal behaviour,” and this negligence resulted in the “repeated sexual assault of many children” who came into contact with Garland while participating in the sports programs offered by the city. The class action alleged that the city was therefore liable for the damages caused by the fault of one of its employees in the performance of his duties.

But in the settlement agreement, “notwithstanding its consent to the agreement,” Westmount denies any liability or wrongdoing arising out of the claims asserted in the class action. It also denies having any “knowledge or awareness” of the incidents of abuse at the time they were committed or at any time prior to them being brought to their attention following the class action.

Quebec Superior Court Justice Marc de Wever approved the settlement in mid-May. The settlement provides for base compensation of $35,000 for each accepted claimant. Additional compensation has been set aside for claimants who have suffered “more severe consequences.” The amount will be determined on a pro rata basis, for a maximum of $200,000.

Matthew Bissonnette, a Los Angeles-based independent filmmaker and class representative, first complained about the abuse in 1993 but was dismissed by police.

In 1978, Bissonnette was 12 years old when Garland began to groom him with gifts like hockey equipment and outings to restaurants and mini-golf. In the class action motion, Bissonnette said that the sexual touching escalated from hugs and massages to touching and masturbating Garland.

In the spring of 1993, while a law student at Queen’s University, Bissonnette filed a criminal complaint against Garland. In the fall of 1993, an investigator told Bissonnette that there was not enough evidence to lay charges against Garland and the case against him would be dropped. The investigator also told Bissonnette that Garland threatened to sue him for defamation if he pursued the matter. “The officer explained that as the petitioner was the sole complainant, he lacked credibility,” according to the class action.

In April 2012, following the highly-publicized conviction of Graham James against former NHL player Theoren Fleury, Bissonnette called police to see if other victims had come forward. Bissonnette was informed that police had no record of complaints against Garland, including Bissonnette’s 1993 complaint. Bissonnette then hired a Montreal criminal lawyer to bring the matter to authorities. On June 2012, Garland died, precluding any possible criminal prosecution against him for the abuse.

So far 17 victims have come forward and have been approved as class members. Other victims have until September 12, 2017 to file a claim to join the class action. Details can be found here.

Westmount has also agreed to designate a garden in the vicinity of its recreation centre to commemorate class members and to “draw continued attention to” and foster increased awareness of child abuse.

“It is worth noting that the City of Westmount acted responsibly in the file, and also named a park for one of the victims,” remarked Bruce Johnston, a Montreal class action lawyer with Trudel Johnston & Lespérance who plead the case on behalf of the victims.

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