Damages: Applying the Korean Tradition of Hyodo

In Kim v. Murdoch, 2023 BCSC 1647, the Supreme Court of British Columbia considered the Korean tradition of hyodo, filial piety, which generally compels children to provide economic and other support to their parents. This was done in the context of determining damages to be awarded to plaintiff parents whose 17 year-old son, Eric (as he was referred to by his Canadian friends and in the written trial decision of the Court), had been tragically killed by a motor vehicle months before his high school graduation. Liability was admitted by the defendants.

The plaintiff parents brought their claim pursuant to the Family Compensation Act, RSBC 1996, c. 126 (the “Act”). As noted by the Court in its decision, compensation under the Act is neither intended to accomplish the impossible, replacing or placing a value on the life of the deceased, nor punish or condemn the defendants. The focus of the Act is strictly on compensation for economic losses suffered by survivors.

In its decision, the Court outlined the profoundly difficult and inherently hypothetical task of determining what would have been the economic future path of Eric, and his parents, had he lived. Central to this challenging task was that assessment of the extent Eric would have followed the traditional Korean practice of hyodo.

Eric, the plaintiffs’ only child, was described in the decision as:

…by all accounts a generous and hard-working young man. He was active in his church group and high school, played bass in church and rock bands, practiced taekwondo, and enjoyed a strong circle of friends, both Korean-Canadian and otherwise. He was also loyal and helpful to his family. He worked long hours in his parents’ sushi restaurant, providing services integral to its operations, without a salary. He broadly assisted his parents, who speak limited English, through translation and other assistance, in business, and in life, for many hours each week, serving as an interpreter and an interface in their dealings with banks, utilities, medical appointments, and other English speakers.

The Court recognized that there is a rare category of cases where courts have awarded more than nominal family compensation damages for the death of a child is based on the deceased child’s practised adherence to filial piety, entrenched in particular cultural norms.  The defendants argued that the claims based on future economic support are excessively speculative, with myriad contingencies cancelling each other out.

The above recognized and considered, the Court held that Eric’s consistent demonstration of dedication to assisting his parents prior to his death, coupled with the particular cultural norms of hyodo, specifically established through expert evidence, placed the case in those rare circumstances where the loss of a child constitutes a sufficiently certain economic loss of substance. Considering a number of factors established in the evidence, the Court held that Eric would have almost certainly practiced economic hyodo in some form. After applying both negative contingencies (e.g. Canadian values diminishing Eric’s sense of obligation in the form of payments) and positive contingencies (e.g. Eric’s years of in-depth experience working on all aspects of his parents’ restaurant), the Court awarded damages commensurate with the same.