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Court rules workers compensation legislation bars civil claim for harassment and bullying

There appears to be a growing trend of employee claims against employers arising from their treatment in the workplace. This can take many forms such as an action for constructive dismissal based on a poisoned workplace, or a demand for bad faith damages as a result of the manner of dismissal, or a claim for damages to compensate for the mental distress caused by harassment or bullying.

This is an emerging area of the law and the applicable legal principles continue to develop as new cases are released. The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench has recently added an interesting new consideration for employee claims arising from their treatment in the workplace: whether a civil action is barred by workers compensation legislation. In Ashraf v SNC Lavalin ATP Inc., 2013 ABQB 143, the Court considered whether a claim by an employee that his employer permitted other employees to bully and harass him was outside its jurisdiction, as a result of provisions and benefits provided by the Workers’ Compensation Act. The employee claimed that he suffered stress, anxiety and self-doubt as a result of his co-workers’ demeaning and harassing conduct. He alleged that this mental anguish caused or aggravated a series of physical ailments which resulted in his inability to work. He sought damages from his employer for pain and suffering, as well as loss of income until age 65.

The employer brought a motion claiming that the court did not have jurisdiction to hear the claim because it was barred by Section 21 of the Workers’ Compensation Act, which states:

  1. No action lies for the recovery of compensation under this Act and all claims for compensation shall be determined by the Board.
  2. This Act and the regulations apply instead of all rights and causes of action, statutory or otherwise, to which a worker, the worker’s legal personal representatives or the worker’s dependents are or might become entitled against the employer of the worker by reason of any accident happening to the worker, and no action in respect of that accident lies against the employer.

The employer argued that the claim fell within the broad definition of accident in the Act:

“Accident” means an accident that arises out of and occurs in the course of employment in an industry to which this Act applies and includes:

(i) a willful and intentional act, not being the act of the worker who suffers the accident,
(ii) a chance event occasioned by a physical or natural cause,
(iii) disablement, and
(iv) a disabling or potentially disabling condition caused by an occupational disease.

The employee argued that his claim did not fall within the Workers’ Compensation Act because his injuries were the result of a series of actions rather than a single event. He further argued that  the Act was not intended to cover a series of wilful events planned and orchestrated by a co-worker and not stopped by the employer.

The Court concluded that employees are entitled to compensation under for the Workers’ Compensation Act for traumatic stress, provided that the injury (whether physical or psychological) occurred in the course of employment. It also found that there were no exemptions in the Act for deliberately inflicting emotional distress. As a result, the Court found that the employee’s action was barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act because he had the right to claim compensation under the Act for the conduct alleged in the Statement of Claim. Therefore, the action was dismissed.

While this appears to be a positive result for the employer because the civil claim was dismissed, the decision potentially has wide implications for other employers because it held that an employee was entitled to claim compensation for bullying and harassment under the Workers’ Compensation Act. While the result turned on the language of the Alberta legislation, the reasoning could be applied in other jurisdictions depending on the similarity of the statutory provisions. This could mean that employers could face increasing workers’ compensation claims for psycholigical injuries resulting from the work environment and other employees’ conduct. Not only does this provide another forum in which an employer must defend these types of claims, but it also has the potential to increase WCB assessments paid by employers if the claims are ultimately successful.

Alison Bird
Cox & Palmer

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Alison J. Bird

Employment Lawyer at Cox & Palmer
Alison Bird is a lawyer practicing in Halifax with the Atlantic regional law firm, Cox & Palmer. Alison is growing her practice in the areas of labour & employment law and litigation. Alison is a frequent presenter on employment law topics and recently presented on the challenges being faced by employers dealing with changing demographics in the workplace. Read more
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