The Court Goes Back to Basics on Workers Compensation

Written by Daniel Standing LL.B., Editor, First Reference Inc.

Worker’s compensation legislation has existed in Canada for more than 100 years and can be traced to the work of the Ontario lawyer, politician, and judge Sir William Meredith who, in 1913, tabled the Meredith Report that is seen as the harbinger of the system of worker’s compensation across the nation. One of the key foundational concepts is the principle of no-fault compensation, a historical compromise between workers and employers. According to this principle, there is no dispute about responsibility or liability for the accident, and injured workers receive benefits regardless of how the injury occurred. In fact, the legislation makes it clear that the worker and the employer waive the right to sue each other over the accident or benefits.

These statutes contain a form of “barring provision” which, to varying degrees, limit one’s ability to sue the other party. In Saskatchewan, the barring provision is particularly stringent, stating, “no employer and no worker or worker’s dependant has a right of action against an employer or a worker with respect to an injury to a worker arising out of and in the course of the worker’s employment.”

A recent decision of the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal, Janvier v Saskatchewan (Workers’ Compensation Board), 2021 SKCA 170, confirms that the no-fault principle stands resolute in Saskatchewan, even when workers argue that their injuries arose out of the employer’s bad faith.

The employees’ claim

The lawsuit arose out of an explosion at the Co-Op Refinery in Regina in October 2011 which injured multiple workers. Several years later, despite the barring provision, some of the workers and their dependants sued the employer, claiming general, aggravated and punitive damages resulting from the incident. Throughout the litigation, the workers argued that their claim that the employer acted in bad faith should fall outside the barring provision. In their view, unless an exception is carved out of the water-tight immunity provision, then employers would be incentivized to create dangerous workplaces. They challenged the law by arguing that it was an unjustifiable violation of section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees the right to life, liberty and security of the person.

The Court of Appeal decision

The court made short work of the constitutional argument, citing a long line of jurisprudence showing that economic or property interests, like the right to sue for workplace injuries, are not protected by s.7 of the Charter.

The employees fared no better with their argument that the law was unconstitutional for blocking their access to the courts. On this point, the court referred to the principle of exclusive jurisdiction, meaning that all claims for compensation are directed solely to the compensation board which acts as the decision-maker and final authority for compensation claims.

Sir Meredith himself saw no issue with an expert tribunal deciding matters of compensation, since, in his view, it should be “impossible for a wealthy employer to harass an employee by compelling him to litigate his claim in a court of law after he has established it to the satisfaction of a Board […] which will be probably quite as competent to reach a proper conclusion as to the matters involved, whether of fact or law, as a court of law.” Clearly, Meredith took the opposite view of the workers in this matter, surmising that it would be disadvantageous to force workers to litigate for compensation before a judge.

Having previously ruled on the issue in 1992, the Court of Appeal once again affirmed that “the exclusive jurisdiction of the Board to resolve disputes arising out of workplace injuries is well known and constitutionally sound.”

Key takeaways for employers

This decision represents a strong statement in support of two of the principles that originally underpinned the worker’s compensation scheme more than a century ago. It means that worker’s compensation boards continue to be the sole arbiters of compensation matters, and workers who are dissatisfied with the result they obtain before these boards cannot shop for an alternate forum to hear their dispute, even if (at least in Saskatchewan) the employee alleges their injury arose out of the employer’s bad faith.

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