Canada: National Union Found Not Liable for Acts of Striking Members

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

The Facts

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 miners.

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.

The Judgment

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 union.

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 SCC 5.

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