Stress From Workplace Investigation Not Compensable

by & Ava Z Moradi, JD, Editor First Reference Inc.

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal clarified that stress from a workplace investigation is a non-compensable workplace event.

What happened?

Arrested for public intoxication in August 2009, a woman was placed in lockup where she fell off the bunk onto the floor and appeared in distress. She was not taken to the local hospital for a medical assessment until later that afternoon, at which point she was placed on life support and passed away a week later. It was subsequently determined that the woman suffered an ischemic stroke while in police custody.

Accordingly, an operational review of the circumstances surrounding the woman’s arrest and detention was conducted and completed in October 2010, declaring that there was no statutory breach and no need for further investigations under the Criminal Code of Canada or the Police Act of Nova Scotia. Another investigation was launched into the circumstances relating to the woman’s death and the adequacy of the initial operational review and completed in May 2012, which was particularly critical of the supervising police officer’s role in the chain of events.

On that same date, the supervising police officer saw a psychologist for a standard debriefing following an unrelated policing incident involving firearms. During this visit, the psychologist diagnosed the supervising police officer with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in relation to the 2009 incident when the woman suffered a stroke while in police custody.

The supervising police officer filed a workers’ compensation claim to seek benefits for the psychological injury from August 2009.

Workers’ Compensation Tribunal and Appeals Tribunal

The supervising officer’s claim was repeatedly denied by the Board and subsequent institutional appeals on the basis that:

  • The supervising officer’s claim did not meet the statutory definition of “accident,” and
  • The workplace investigations in this case constitute a “labour relations matter,” which are excluded by Board Policy 1.3.9 and are therefore not compensable.

The supervising officer appealed the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal’s decision.

Nova Scotia Court of Appeal

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal was not persuaded that the Tribunal erred in its analysis or disposition and ultimately dismissed the appeal. The Court found that, when read together with the outcome, the Tribunal’s analysis reveals a conclusion that falls within a range of reasonable outcomes.

In assessing the various applicable definitions, the Court agreed with the Tribunal’s finding that the supervising officer’s claim for psychological injuries did not fit within the accepted definitions of “accident” and “traumatic event.”

Specifically, the claim was not captured within the meaning of “accident” in section 2 of the Workers’ Compensation Act as “accident” excludes stress other than an acute reaction to a traumatic event. Then, in considering the interplay between the undefined term “traumatic event” and the adjudication of psychological claims brought as a reaction to traumatic events, the WCAT explained that the supervising officer’s claim did not result as a direct personal experience of an event nor did he directly witness an event that is sudden, frightening or shocking, having a specific time and place, involving actual or threatened death or serious injury to one’s self or others or threat to one’s physical integrity.

Instead, the Tribunal reasoned that the supervising officer’s direct involvement with the woman was limited when she was in his custody, he was not present at the time of her death which occurred some days later at the hospital, and the circumstances of the woman’s death were not objectively traumatic as she died of natural causes. While it was accepted that the supervising officer may feel responsible for persons held in cells and that the protracted and repeated investigations added to his fear and anxiety, the incident of August 2009 did not constitute a traumatic event, as that definition requires there to be “a specific time and place and that there at least be a threat to one’s physical integrity.”

Moreover, the Court agreed with the Tribunal that the subsequent workplace investigations are reasonably characterized as “labour relations matters,” which include issues such as a decision to change the worker’s working conditions, a decision to discipline the worker, performance management and work evaluation, among others. These labour relations matters are specifically excluded from what can be compensable, and therefore the supervising officer’s claim was dismissed.

Takeaways for employers

Generally, if a worker is diagnosed with PTSD due to a job-related trauma, the worker may qualify for compensation. However, exceptions apply and that is what this case explored. For employers in Nova Scotia, this case confirmed that a worker will likely be unsuccessful in claiming stress arising from workplace investigations due to the labour relations matters exclusion.

For greater clarity, the WCB will not compensate a traumatic psychological injury when caused by labour relations issues such as a decision to change the worker’s working conditions, a decision to discipline the worker, a decision to terminate the worker’s employment or routine employment related actions such as interpersonal relationships and conflicts, performance management and work evaluation.

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