Canada: Mental Stress In The Workplace: Plesner v. British Columbia (Hydro And Power Authority)

Last Updated: July 2 2010
Article by Dana Hooker

When faced with a worker's claim for benefits, the officers of the Workers' Compensation Board or WorkSafeBC (the "Board") determine eligibility in accordance with the provisions of the Workers' Compensation Act, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 492 (the "Act"). In the course of doing so, the officers apply the policies set and amended by the Board pursuant to its jurisdiction under this statute.

The majority of claims, which tend to relate to physical injuries, are adjudicated with reference to section 5 of the Act. Key to the decision to grant benefits under section 5(1) is a finding that the injury in question arose out of, and in the course of, the employment. However, claims for mental stress that do not result from a physical injury are adjudicated differently. In particular, section 5.1 of the Act requires that the mental stress arise out of and in the course of the employment, be an "acute reaction to a sudden and unexpected traumatic event", be diagnosed by a physician or psychologist as a mental or physical condition that is described in the most recent American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and that it must not be caused by labour-relations or work environment issues (e.g. changes in duties or working conditions, discipline or termination of employment).

Prior to April 30, 2009, Rehabilitation Services and Claims Manual Policy #13.30 (the "Policy") — which the Board applies in the course of adjudicating claims under section 5.1 of the Act — operated to restrict benefits to only those workers who could show that their claims of mental stress fit within a fairly narrow category of certain reactions to certain types of incidents.

The Policy defined "acute" as an immediate and identifiable reaction, where the response is usually:

one of severe emotional shock, helplessness and/or fear. It may be the result of:

  • a direct personal observation of an actual or threatened death or serious injury;
  • a threat to one's physical integrity;
  • witnessing an event that involves death or injury; or
  • witnessing a personal assault or other violent criminal act.

"Traumatic" was defined as "a severely emotionally disturbing event" which could include:

  • a horrific accident;
  • an armed robbery;
  • a hostage-taking;
  • an actual or threatened physical violence;
  • an actual or threatened sexual assault; and
  • a death threat.

Further, the Policy indicated that the incident in question in a given claim should be "generally accepted as being traumatic", and outlined specific scenarios where benefits in relation to mental stress generally would, or would not, be provided.

On January 16, 2003, a worker for the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority, Mr. Peter Plesner, experienced an incident at his workplace. Mr. Plesner was at a training session when a natural gas pipeline that was located approximately 40 to 50 feet away from him ruptured. Mr. Plesner first heard and then later observed (purposively), the gas shooting from the rupture, and considered (at the time) that it was a dangerous situation and that an explosion was imminent.

He and his co-workers were evacuated to a mustering station at a gravel parking lot and waited there until the rupture was safely contained 67 minutes later. There was no explosion and Mr. Plesner voluntarily remained at work after containment, and even worked overtime that day.

However, approximately two weeks after this incident, Mr. Plesner visited his physician and was diagnosed as having symptoms of stress. He was referred to a psychiatrist (whom he saw in June 2003) and was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). Mr. Plesner was unable to continue working after February 2003.

Mr. Plesner filed a claim with the Board in October 2003. In his application, he indicated that in addition to the incident on January 16, 2003, there had been many safety issues in his workplace over the four previous years, including life threatening incidents. He stated that as a result he had been suffering from stress and depression. His physician stated that he had displayed some symptoms previous to the January 16 incident, but had only experienced his first episode of major depression and symptoms of PTSD after January 16.

The Board initially denied Mr. Plesner's claim on the basis that his mental stress was chronic, rather than acute as described in the Policy. In addition, the officer determined that Mr. Plesner's experience did not share enough similarities with the examples of traumatic events provided for in the Policy to warrant acceptance in the circumstances.

Mr. Plesner appealed this decision to the Review Division. The review officer accepted that Mr. Plesner's PTSD had manifested as a result of the January 16 incident but concluded that the incident was not a "traumatic event" as contemplated by the Policy; mere risk to a worker from a potential accident was not a traumatic event in the view of the review officer. Again, Mr. Plesner's claim was denied, and again, Mr. Plesner appealed that decision. However, the Workers' Compensation Appeal Tribunal ("WCAT") upheld the decision of the Review Division, and agreed with the review officer that the January 16 incident was not a traumatic event as contemplated by the Policy. Mr. Plesner then appealed the WCAT decision by way of judicial review, and the matter ultimately made its way to the British Columbia Court of Appeal.

It was at the Court of Appeal that Mr. Plesner finally found some success: In Plesner v. British Columbia (Hydro and Power Authority), [2009] B.C.J. No, 856, a majority of the Court of Appeal found that the requirement of a "traumatic event" in section 5.1(1)(a) of the Act, when read together with the Policy, breached the equality provisions at section 15(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Part 1 of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (U.K.), 1982 c. 11). In particular, the Court of Appeal found that the Act and Policy, when read together, discriminated against those suffering purely mental injuries by setting a higher bar to benefit entitlement than those who suffered physical injuries in the course of their employment. As a result, the Court found that certain portions of the Policy were of no force and effect, and remitted the issue of Mr. Plesner's entitlements under the Act back to WCAT.

Key to the Court's decision, and combined with the Court's discussion of the stigma historically associated with mental illness, was that individuals such as Mr. Plesner had their claims subjected to a "heightened vigilance requiring a distinct and elevated burden of proof in relation to causation", with the result that workers with purely mental injuries had a more restricted access to benefits under the Act than those with physical injuries. Furthermore, the Court held that this differential access to benefits could not be justified.

Finally, and important to understanding the impact of the Court of Appeal's decision, the majority found that section 5.1(1)(a) of the Act only offended the Charter when read in conjunction with the Policy. The Court was otherwise satisfied that section 5.1, to the extent it was implicated in the appeal, could stand alone. Accordingly, in fashioning an appropriate remedy for this Charter violation, the Court of Appeal only severed those portions of the Policy that when read in conjunction with the Act, resulted in the differential treatment discussed above.

After this decision of the Court of Appeal, the Board resolved on July 14, 2009, to amend the Policy retroactive to April 30 of that year—the date of the Plesner decision. Among other things, the definitions of "acute" and "traumatic event" were altered. The Policy now includes a statement to the effect that an acute reaction may be delayed, and traumatic event is now defined only as "an emotionally shocking event". Importantly, the July 2009 amendments to the Policy deleted the examples of "acute reaction" and "traumatic event", and claims of mental distress are now assessed on an individual, case-specific basis.

The Plesner decision and consequent amendments to the Policy raise questions of whether the number of claims for mental stress will now increase—with a corresponding increase in premiums to employers. Clearly, the changes to the definitions "acute" and "traumatic" have created more room for the acceptance of mental stress claims. Furthermore, although it survived judicial scrutiny in this particular case, the Court of Appeal made clear in Plesner that other elements of both section 5.1 of the Act and the Policy may face challenge in the future: "There may well be other aspects of these provisions which are discriminatory, but they are not in issue on this appeal and will have to be left to another day."

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:
  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.
  • Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.
    If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here
    If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here

    Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

    Use of

    You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


    Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

    The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


    Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

    • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
    • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
    • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

    Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

    Information Collection and Use

    We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

    We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

    Mondaq News Alerts

    In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


    A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

    Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

    Log Files

    We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


    This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

    Surveys & Contests

    From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


    If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


    From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

    *** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .


    This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

    Correcting/Updating Personal Information

    If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

    Notification of Changes

    If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

    How to contact Mondaq

    You can contact us with comments or queries at

    If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.

    By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions