WestJet may be heading back to court after the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld a court decision that refused to throw out a proposed class-action lawsuit against the airline that says it fosters a culture that tolerates harassment of female employees.
Former flight attendant Mandalena Lewis is suing over alleged gender-based discrimination. She said the airline broke its promise to provide a harassment free workplace for women.
She said WestJet has tried to stop this lawsuit at every turn, but she’s confident not only that it will be approved as a class-action, but that it will win.
“When we do win this lawsuit it’s going to create a precedent for working women across the Canadian work sector, and possibly across the world, in the sense that it’s going to set a precedent for how employers fail in their promises to keep their employees safe in the workplace.”
The airline first applied to the B.C. Supreme Court in 2017 to strike the proposed lawsuit, on the grounds that it was better heard before a human rights tribunal and workers’ compensation board.
When the Supreme Court dismissed that application, the airline took it to the Court of Appeal. A three-judge panel ruled against WestJet on Thursday.
Lewis said the steps the WestJet has taken to stop the lawsuit only make her case stronger.
“Every time they do try to put a stop to this proposed class it sort of infuriates the class of women that are fighting this,” Lewis said.
“It infuriates the truth that they have been covering up. So it’s frustrating, but it’s important to keep on and it has made me resilient.”
Lewis claims she was sexually assaulted by a WestJet pilot in Maui in 2010 and that WestJet tried to silence her and protect the pilot from criminal charges, before eventually terminating her employment.
“WestJet basically told me to be quiet about the incident, and that it was an isolated event, and to sign a non-disclosure agreement — and sort of encouraged me to leave the company because I wasn’t happy with how they dealt with it,” Lewis said in 2017.
Lewis said Thursday that sexual harassment in the airline industry is prevalent because of power imbalances between mostly male pilots and mostly female flight attendants.
“Pilots are generally older, male, they’re very expensive to hire, to train and to fire. Flight attendants are generally younger, female, and much cheaper to hire, train and fire,” said Lewis.
Lewis’ lawsuit proposes to represent all past and current female flight attendants whose employment with WestJet included a so-called “anti-harassment promise”.
She said the lawsuit will go to certification sometime in the next year to be approved as a class-action.
Lewis said she wants WestJet to stop fighting the proposed action in court and to be accountable to her claim of alleged breach of contract, but she expects the airline will keep pushing back.
“We respect the decision of the court and are in the process of reviewing the decision with our counsel to determine next steps,” said a statement from WestJet on Thursday.
None of the allegations in the proposed class-action lawsuit have been proven in court.
– With files from the Canadian Press