On February 18, 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada handed down a
decision addressing, among other things, the question whether a
national union and its officers had any liability for the death of
replacement workers caused by a striker.1
During a violence-plagued strike at the Giant Mine in
Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories, a striker succeeded in
evading security and entering the mine where he planted explosives
which, when detonated by a trip wire, killed 9 replacement
The families of the dead miners sued the mine owner, the
security company and the government for negligence. They also sued
the national union of the striking workers, some union officials
and members of the local union for failing to control the striker
and for inciting him.
When the tragedy occurred, the strikers were represented by the
local of a national union (the Canadian Association of Smelter and
Allied Workers). The lawsuit proceeded only against the national
union because the suit against the union local was dismissed as
barred due to a limitation period.
Therefore, the question to be addressed was whether the national
union was directly or vicariously liable for the death of the
miners as a result of the conduct of one of its members.
After analysing the statutory framework, the constitutional
documents of the union and the clauses of the collective agreement
which provided that the union local was the exclusive bargaining
unit for the striking employees, the Court concluded that the local
was a separate legal entity from the national union and that it
could be sued in its own right. Therefore, the national union could
not be held directly liable for actions of members of the local
The Court also found that the national union was not vicariously
liable for the actions of the members of the union local.
First, it concluded that there was no authority on the matter of
the vicarious liability of a national union. The Court then
examined the relationship between the national union and the
members of the local union and concluded that it was not
sufficiently close to justify a finding of vicarious liability.
Finally, in the absence of proof of a common design, the Court did
not find that the union had joint or concerted action liability
with the murderer.
The main conclusion to be retained from this decision is that in
such circumstances, a union local can be recognized as a separate
legal entity from its national union. In this context, a national
union will only be liable for its own actions or where there is
proof that the union's conduct permits the principles of joint
or vicarious liability to apply.
Since the action against the local union was dismissed as
time-barred, the action was brought only against the national
union. It would have been interesting to see the conclusions of the
Court regarding the local union's liability if that had not
been the case.
1. Fullowka v. Pinkerton's of Canada Ltd., 2010
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