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Quebec Superior Court judge authorizes QMJHL hazing class-action lawsuit

A Canadian Hockey League logo is shown on a jersey during the CHL Top Prospects hockey game in Moncton, New Brunswick, Jan. 24, 2024. Quebec Superior Court has authorized a class-action lawsuit against the Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League and its teams over alleged hazing abuse. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

MONTREAL — Quebec Superior Court has authorized a class-action lawsuit against the Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League and its teams over alleged hazing abuse.

Justice Jacques G. Bouchard gave the class action the green light in a decision published Wednesday, after hearing arguments last month in Quebec City.

The case can now be heard on its merits, something that could still be years away. 

The lawsuit of more than $15 million was filed last year by Carl Latulippe, a former Quebec minor hockey star who went public with alleged abuse suffered while playing for two teams in the mid-1990s.

It targets the league, its member franchises and its umbrella organization — the Canadian Hockey League — and seeks $650,000 for the plaintiff in damages, including pain, suffering and humiliation, as well as lost productivity and therapy costs. 

Another $15 million would be shared among other alleged victims.

Latulippe played for three teams in the Quebec-based major junior league between 1994 and 1996 and is represented by Montreal law firm Kugler Kandestin.

One of his lawyers, David Stolow, said in an interview that Latulippe was very happy when informed about Wednesday's ruling.

"It was very, very important and I think quite emotional both for him and for me as well, it was very welcome news to receive," Stolow said.

Those covered in the class action are “all hockey players who have experienced abuse while they were minors and playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League" since July 1, 1969.

Bouchard noted in his judgment the process for authorizing a class action doesn't involve delving into the merits, but rather to filter applications that are frivolous.

"The court recognizes that the request for authorization is formulated in a broad and ambitious manner," Bouchard wrote about what could be a significant class size. 

"But it is only by examining the merits of all the allegations of fact that it will be possible to detect or not the existence of such joint liability with regard to all or only certain teams."

Latulippe, now 46, first made public the alleged abuse he faced in an interview with Montreal La Presse last year.

A first-round of the Chicoutimi Saguenéens in the 1994 QMJHL draft, Latulippe alleged that during training camp he was forced by veteran players to undress and masturbate in front of teammates on a team bus, with full knowledge of the coaches. He also alleges that team veterans assaulted rookies with soap wrapped in towels.

Latulippe left the team briefly after the bus incident and later returned at the behest of the coach, but when he discussed the abuse he was allegedly told by the coach that the hazing would only last a year and help build character. 

He played six regular-season games with the Saguenéens before joining the Drummondville Voltigeurs, where he alleges he faced more abuse. He said Voltigeurs rookies covered themselves in shampoo to make it difficult for veterans to grab and assault them in the shower. 

In the documents, Latulippe also describes being forced to binge drink at a team initiation event in Drummondville, Que.

After the Voltigeurs, the plaintiff played for the Beauport Harfangs — who have since become the Quebec City Remparts. He said no hazing incidents occurred while he was on that team.

Latulippe's lawsuit argued that the defendants, "when they had an obligation to protect the members of the class and to look after their well-being, witnessed the abuse, encouraged it, neglected, tolerated, covered up or ignored it."

The league had argued against having all teams named as defendants, but Bouchard ruled it was too early to rule out any clubs.

"The statements of fault by omission or negligence aimed at all of the defendants, if confirmed by probative evidence, could possibly lead to the conclusions sought," Bouchard wrote. "It would therefore be premature to address these delicate questions now and especially taking into account the very undemanding threshold required (for authorization)."

The league's lawyers had argued that a class action was not the proper way to proceed and also raised a case filed in Ontario, where a Superior Court judge in February 2023 denied authorization for a class action in that province involving players in Canada's three major junior hockey leagues — including the QMJHL — dating back to 1975.

The Ontario judge who heard the application accepted the evidence that players suffered “horrific and despicable and unquestionably criminal acts” at the hands of teammates and staff during initiations and hazing rituals, but that plaintiffs failed to present a workable plan to litigate.

The players have appealed and the Ontario Court of Appeal will hear that case on June 11. 

Stolow said the Quebec filing will exclude anyone who participates in any individual lawsuits in Ontario, and class members in Quebec will have certain period of time to opt out of the Quebec case.

Bouchard also ruled that other victims could use pseudonyms during the case.

Stolow said others have come forward without revealing names or numbers. He said it's typical for people to come forward at different stages.

"For us it's really important to convey the message that if someone wants to reach out and picks up the phone and calls me, there is a guarantee of confidentiality," Stolow said. 

The league and other defendants will have 30 days from the notice of judgment to seek permission to appeal the ruling.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 10, 2024.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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