On March 28, 2014 the Supreme Court of Canada resolved the confusion about whether and how provincial workers’ compensation laws apply to claims of federal government employees under the federal workers compensation law (the Government Employees Compensation Act):
- Provincial Law Unless “Conflict”. Provincial workers’ compensation laws (including relevant policies) apply to federal government employee compensation claims unless the provincial law or policy “directly” and “expressly” conflicts with the federal law.
- Federal Law If Conflict. If there is such a conflict, the federal workers’ compensation law applies.
The claim in the particular case was based on benefits for an “accident” based on “chronic onset stress”. Both the federal and the applicable provincial law (Alberta) broadly defined “accident” to include a wilful and intentional act, but a provincial policy set out additional criteria for chronic onset stress claims. The SCC said the laws did not “conflict” so the provincial law – and its limiting policy – applied to the claim.
All four Atlantic Provinces exclude chronic or gradual onset stress as a compensable injury under their respective provincial workers compensation schemes. Most have accepted that the broad definition of “accident” in the federal law includes gradual onset stress – but those where courts have considered it have applied different legal tests:
- NS. For some time, NS has applied a policy substantially similar to the Alberta policy in this case to federal employees complaining of gradual onset stress. Though there are several factors, ultimately, the test boils down to this: did the work-related stress result from excessive or unusual workplace pressures? The SCC’s decision will likely have little impact in NS.
- NB and NL. Courts in NB and NL previously rejected the idea that provincial policies can expand or limit what is an “accident” under the federal law and have applied this test: would a reasonable person have responded in the same way to the same stressors? The SCC’s decision means these courts were incorrect – and the provincial boards now seem free to adopt a policy to apply to such claims, though it remains to be seen whether they will do so.