A 2011 case involving wrongful death compensation for deceased fisheries workers in Atlantic Canada revealed an interesting conflict in governing legislation that should be noted by the maritime industry. As a result, widows and estates of deceased fishers in Newfoundland and Labrador have been held entitled to sue for damages resulting from their husbands’ deaths at sea, despite a provincial workers’ compensation statute prohibiting such lawsuits by beneficiaries of compensation under that statute.

In Newfoundland (Workplace Health, Safety & Compensation Commission) v. Ryan Estate, two Newfoundland brothers were killed when their jointly-owned fishing vessel capsized off Cape Bonavista in 2004. Their estates and widows sued the designer and builder of the vessel for negligence and breach of contract. They also sued the Attorney General of Canada for alleged negligence by federal steamship inspectors, notably in testing the boat’s stability. The families of the deceased also obtained compensation from the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission of the province under an arrangement contingent upon whether they were ultimately successful in their lawsuits.

Initially, an internal review specialist with the Commission decided that their action against the defendants was barred by s. 44 of Newfound-land’s Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Act (the WHSCA). However the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador, Trial Division, later reversed that ruling, resulting in an appeal to the provincial Court of Appeal launched by the Commission, the designer and the builder of the vessel, as well as the federal Attorney General.

The SCC found that the WHSCA was a no-fault insurance scheme, entitling injured workers to be paid from a fund to which employers were required to contribute, and providing benefits in substitution for damages obtainable in tort litigation. Removing their right to sue was a “trade off” for the respondents’ eligibility for benefits under that no-fault scheme. As such, the WHSCA was definitely within the powers of the province under subsect. 92(13) of the Constitution Act, 1867, even if it had incidental effects on matters falling under exclusive federal legislative jurisdiction. But while provincial legislation could affect federal jurisdiction, it could not impair a “core” element of that jurisdiction in a serious manner. In this case, maritime negligence law was that core element, with its exclusive federal jurisdiction over “navigation and shipping” under subsect. 91(10) of the Constitution Act, 1867.

S. 44 of the WHSCA impaired a core component of federal jurisdiction over navigation and shipping in this case because it eliminated reliance on maritime negligence law to obtain compensation for the death or injury of Newfoundland and Labrador fishers arising from workplace accidents occurring in a maritime context.

In addition, s. 44 of the WHSCA also ran afoul of Canadian constitutional law because its application was incompatible with the federally-enacted right of the dependents of the maritime workers to sue for damages in tort under subsect. 6(2) of the Marine Liability Act. Thus, compliance with the federal law was impossible without violating provincial law, and the two provisions could not co-exist. Further, it was found that s. 44 frustrated the purpose of subsect. 6(2), which was to allow dependents of a deceased person access to the federal maritime tort regime to the same extent that the deceased would have had if he or she had not died.

Accordingly, the federal statute took precedence over the incompatible provincial provision. The plaintiffs could therefore continue their damage action.

Interestingly, in the United States, the Fifth and Ninth Circuits have also given precedence to the “general maritime law”, allowing maritime workers to claim damages in tort for negligence in U.S. federal district courts despite workers’ compensation legislation of individual U.S. states barring such claims by WC beneficiaries. The Eleventh Circuit has taken the opposite position, however. For a very recent discussion of this issue in the U.S., see Morrow v. Marinemax, where the District Court for the District of New Jersey, in the Third Circuit, absent any controlling precedent on the point in its own Circuit, opted to follow the Fifth and Ninth Circuits in giving priority to maritime law rights of suit in tort over incompatible prohibitions of New Jersey’s workers’ compen-sation statute barring such litigation.