Appeal by Workers’ Compensation Board from a decision overturning a decision of the Workers’ Compensation Board Appeals Commission regarding reduction of temporary total disability benefits on the basis of employability.

[2014] A.J. No. 315

2014 ABCA 117

Alberta Court of Appeal

P.W.L. Martin and B.K. O’Ferrall JJ.A. and R.E. Nation J. (ad hoc)

April 1, 2014

The worker, a 19-year-old unskilled manual labourer, lost his dominant left hand operating a saw at work. He underwent surgery to re-attach the hand and extensive rehabilitation treatment. He was left with serious limitations with the use of his left hand, resulting in permanent work restrictions. He was unable to return to his pre-accident work. He obtained disability and economic loss benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act, RSA 2000, c. W-15 (the “Act”).

The Workers’ Compensation Board retroactively adjusted the worker’s benefits payments to reflect potential earnings in other employment, as a video store clerk. The worker appealed the decision. The Appeals Commission rejected the Board’s finding that the worker was employable as a video store clerk, and remitted the matter back to the Board to identify a suitable position for the worker for the purposes of calculating his benefits payments. The Appeals Commission based this decision on medical evidence which found the worker was capable of suitable work and was not permanently disabled from any form of work due to the accident. The hand injury had created a significant functional impairment for the worker, but did not preclude all forms of future employment.

The worker appealed the Appeals Commission’s decision to the Court of Queen’s Bench, on the basis that the Appeals Commission erred by refusing to consider individual factors regarding his capability for competitive employment, refusing to consider evidence that he had been granted income assistance benefits for severely handicapped persons, and finding he was capable of other suitable work. The appeal judge concluded the Appeals Commission’s decision was unreasonable on the basis that it failed to consider the worker’s individual limitations, including his severe intellectual disabilities unrelated to the workplace accident, that his eligibility for other benefits in relation to his handicap were not a relevant consideration, and that the decision he was capable of suitable employment was unreasonable. The appeal judge referred the matter back to the Appeals Commission for determination of the worker’s employability according to his reasons.

The Board appealed to the Alberta Court of Appeal. The majority found the appeal judge erred in concluding the Appeals Commission’s decision was unreasonable.

The majority observed that the workers’ compensation system is based on the idea that an injured worker will be returned to a condition where he or she is employable. This framework of compensation is intended to provide medical and related assistance for those injured at work and provide compensation to workers for lost capacity, as defined under the legislation, regulations, and policies. Under that scheme, benefits are payable as long as the worker has a compensable disability. The word “compensable” refers to the injury to the worker as a result of the workplace accident. The court held that the appeal judge erred by interpreting the legislation on the basis that the Board must consider the condition and abilities of the whole person, including matters unrelated to the workplace accident. This interpretation undermines the importance of disability assessments in each case. If a suitable job could not be identified in the context of an analysis of the “whole person,” an injured worker could remain on temporary disability benefits regardless of whether his or her injury is permanent. On this basis, the Appeals Commission’s interpretation of the legislative scheme was reasonable.

The majority upheld the decision of the Appeals Commission and directed the matter be returned to the Board to identify a new, suitable position against which to estimate the worker’s post-accident earning capacity for the purposes of assessing benefits. The majority noted that it had been more than 10 years since the workplace accident, and the worker had yet to have the matter resolved with the Board. It referred to previous admonishments of the Board in decisions of the Court of Queen’s Bench and the Court of Appeal in respect of inordinate delay in resolving such matters.