Canada: SCC To Determine Whether Provincial Workplace Safety Legislation Bars Negligence Claims For Deaths And Accidents At Sea

Newfoundland (Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission) v. Ryan Estate will provide an opportunity for the Supreme Court of Canada to reconsider the constitutional issues of interjurisdictional immunity and paramountcy since its landmark decision in Ordon Estate v. Grail.

In Ordon Estate, the Supreme Court held that provincial legislative provisions providing for derivative claims for dependents of injured persons in tort did not apply to claims based on federal maritime law, which was part of the "core" of navigation and shipping under s. 91(10) of the Constitution Act, 1867. Following Ordon Estate, Parliament enacted s. 6 of the Marine Liability Act (MLA). Section 6 of the MLA provides that if a person is injured or killed by the fault or neglect of another, his or her dependents may maintain an action in a court of competent jurisdiction for the loss resulting from the injury or death.

The issue in Ryan Estateis whether no-fault provincial workplace health and safety legislation applies so as to bar maritime tort claims by family members of deceased or injured persons under the federal MLA.


David and Joseph Ryan died at sea after abandoning the Ryan's Commander near the Northeast coast of Newfoundland during a fishing voyage. Their dependents sued the manufacturer of the ship, its architect and the Attorney General of Canada (the latter was named on the theory that Transport Canada had negligently approved the vessel as seaworthy). The manufacturer and the ship's architect applied to the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission for a determination that the Ryan dependents were barred from pursuing their action pursuant to the provincial Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Act (the "WHSCA").

Section 44 of the Newfoundland WHSCA, like other provincial legislative schemes, provides for a no-fault compensation scheme for workplace accidents. Section 44(1) provides that the right of compensation is "instead of rights and rights of action, statutory or otherwise, to which a worker or his or her dependents are entitled against an employer or a worker because of an injury in respect of which compensation is payable". Section 44(2) provides that a "worker" and "his or her dependents... has no right of action in respect of an injury against an employer... unless the injury occurred otherwise than in the conduct of the operations usual in or incidental to the industry carried on by the employer."

Decisions Below

At first instance, the Commission concluded that the action was barred by virtue of s. 44 of the WHSCA. The Newfoundland Supreme Court, Trial Division, quashed the decision. The majority of the Newfoundland Court of Appeal (Welsh J.A. dissenting) upheld the decision of the Trial Division.

The majority of the Newfoundland Court of Appeal held that s. 44 of the WHSCA was constitutionally inapplicable to the Ryan dependants pursuant to the doctrine of interjurisdictional immunity. Section 44 purported to "take away the right of a worker to sue", under s. 6 of the MLA, which was "the gateway into the federal system of maritime negligence law". Section 44 trenched on the "core" of the federal legislative competence over navigation and shipping. The majority noted that the Court in Ordon Estate had decided that maritime negligence law formed part of the "core" jurisdiction under s. 91(10). Furthermore, s. 44 met the required standard of impairment for the doctrine of interjurisdictional immunity to be engaged; it impaired and did not "merely affect" federal jurisdiction over navigation and shipping since it completely eliminated reliance on maritime negligence law to obtain compensation for death or injury arising from workplace accidents in the maritime context.

The majority of the Court of Appeal also held that s. 44 of the WHSCA conflicted with s. 6 of the MLA. It was not possible to simultaneously comply with each statutory provision since maritime claimants wishing to avail themselves of the right to sue under s. 6 of the MLA would be precluded from doing so by virtue of the provincial statute. Furthermore, s. 44 frustrated the federal purpose of s. 6(2) of the MLA of allowing dependents of deceased persons access to federal maritime tort law.

Potential Significance

Ryan Estate will be of significant interest to companies engaged in the shipping industry, particularly in the coastal provinces. If the majority decision is upheld, employers who pay into the no-fault provincial insurance scheme (in return for immunity from costly civil actions) will nonetheless be subject to claims in negligence brought by dependents of injured and deceased persons under s. 6 of the MLA. The resulting unfairness was noted by Welsh J.A. in dissent.

Furthermore, the decision in Ryan Estate will have implications for all companies doing business with federal works and undertakings. As the dissenting judgment by Welsh J.A. makes clear, the Supreme Court has previously upheld the application of provincial laws of general application (including workplace safety legislation) to federal works and undertakings. The majority decision in Ryan Estate, by contrast, illustrates that a provincial statute may be inapplicable where it touches on the core of a federal head of power or conflicts with federal law.

Case Information

Newfoundland (Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission) v. Ryan Estate

Leave Granted: April 5, 2012

SCC Docket: 34429

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.

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