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A Mountie stands in the lobby of SNC-Lavalin in Montreal, April 13, 2012.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

An Ontario judge has certified a shareholder class action lawsuit against SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. and company directors over allegations relating to the departure of SNC's chief executive and two other executives this year.

The move is only a first step in the lawsuit, which is seeking $1-billion in damages, and does not deal with the merits of the claim.

SNC and the other defendants also did not oppose the motion to certify the claim. The Montreal-based firm has denied the allegations in the lawsuit and plans to defend itself.

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The company has agreed to pay almost $250,000 to publicize notice of the claim and cover fees incurred by the plaintiffs for two experts.

The case relates to $56-million worth of payments SNC made to unknown commercial agents to help win construction contracts. The money has vanished and the company has largely blamed the trouble on former vice-president Riadh BenAissa, who ran the construction division and is under arrest in Switzerland.

SNC dismissed Mr. Ben Aissa in February along with another executive in his division, Stéphane Roy. Pierre Duhaime also left as CEO amid allegations he played a role in approving the payments.

No allegations have been proven, and Mr. BenAissa has denied any wrongdoing.

The RCMP have launched an investigation and searched SNC's offices. This week Montreal police also conducted a search at McGill University Health Centre, which has hired a consortium led by SNC for a billion-dollar project. Mr. Ben Aissa was the company's lead executive on the project. SNC has said that it is co-operating with all of the investigations.

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