Workers’ Compensation is a government-run, mandatory no-fault insurance program that provides compensation to injured workers without regard to fault or the employer’s ability to pay. As such, employers should feel safe knowing any dispute arising from worker’s compensation issues will be dealt with by the Worker’s Compensation Board (“WCB”) rather than the courts. Notwithstanding this, employers will occasionally find themselves involved in a civil action that bases its claim on issues normally within the jurisdiction of the WCB.
A recent Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench decision, Arndt v. Scandinavian Cultural Society of Calgary (“Arndt”), is an example of such a case. In Arndt, the Plaintiff worked as a caretaker for the defendant employer. Before getting hired, the Plaintiff was recuperating from an injury but expected to be able to perform his caretaker duties despite his injury. The caretaker position ended up being more than the Plaintiff expected in terms of workload and physical strain, and the Plaintiff became concerned his work duties would aggravate his injury. He expressed his concerns to the employer, who allegedly assured him he would have Worker’s Compensation coverage.
After he began experiencing pain in his “upper extremities”, the Plaintiff told the employer the ongoing terms of his work would need to be adjusted to accommodate his injury. He was replaced and given a termination letter soon after telling this to the employer.
The Plaintiff then made a WCB claim for his injuries. The WCB granted him six weeks of benefits which, according to the Plaintiff, were issued without determining the cause of the injury. The Plaintiff disagreed with this amount and went on to pursue various appeals seeking further benefits to which he felt he was entitled. Unfortunately for the Plaintiff, these appeals were unsuccessful.
During the WCB’s investigation, the Plaintiff said he was misdiagnosed due to the conduct of the employer. Afterwards, he sued the employer, the directors of the employer, and the employer’s sister organization. The Plaintiff filed a wrongful dismissal action against the employer alleging it acted in bad faith by misrepresenting his condition when the WCB was evaluating his claim. Further, he brought another lawsuit against the individual directors, similarly alleging his WCB compensation was compromised due to their misrepresentations. The Plaintiff eventually amended the lawsuits to include the employer’s sister organization along with additional directors.
At a summary trial of all of these claims (an expedited court process), the employer argued the claims against it were barred by operation of the Worker’s Compensation Act (“WCA”), as the only compensation the Plaintiff could be entitled to would be any benefits payable under that program. Justice Grosse agreed and dismissed the Plaintiff’s claim, relying on an earlier Alberta Court of Appeal decision that the WCA explicitly prohibits civil action (lawsuits) being taken against the employer or any worker employed by the employer.
In this case, it was inappropriate to let the Plaintiff escape the Worker’s Compensation regime by pleading that the employer and other Defendants misrepresented his work situation to the WCB. It is the WCB’s duty to solve discrepancies between information. Therefore, alleging the Defendants’ representations were actually misrepresentations was, essentially, the same as arguing that the WCB’s conclusion was wrong. If this was the case, than the issue should have been addressed using the WCB’s internal appeal system or through judicial review (a court process for oversight of decisions by statutory decision-makers like the WCB).
The Plaintiff attempted to argue that only the sister company was covered by the WCB regime, and not the employer. Justice Grosse dismissed this argument, noting that the Court of Appeal had earlier explicitly found that determining whether an entity is an “employer” pursuant to the WCA is an issue under the jurisdiction of the WCB. Whether or not the employer was not protected by the WCA was up to the WCB and not the Court.
Overall, both actions were found to be a “collateral attack” on previous WCB decisions – an attempt to avoid the outcome of those decisions indirectly by having the Court address them instead. The claims were therefore denied on the grounds of a lack of jurisdiction in the Court.
This decision has firmly shown the courts will not consider Worker’s Compensation issues that can be addressed by the Worker’s Compensation regime, no matter how the parties try to characterize their claim. Where a party is unsatisfied with a decision, they must challenge it using the WCB’s internal appeal process and then potentially judicial review. Attempting to get a court to address the decision through civil litigation is inappropriate and will ultimately be unsuccessful.
The McLennan Ross Labour and Employment practice group has a strong reputation and years of experience providing effective legal advice to clients. Should you or your company have questions regarding Worker’s Compensation or any other employment-related issue, we would encourage you to contact any member of the practice group.
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