August 14, 2013 - The Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) has decided that the provincial workers’ compensation regimes are constitutionally valid with respect to maritime workplace injuries and neither an injured maritime worker, nor his estate may sue an employer who is subject to the workers’ compensation regime.

As reported in our ALERT of April 5, 2012, the issue of whether provincial workers’ compensation regimes apply to maritime workplace injuries was to be decided by the Supreme Court of Canada in the case known as the “RYAN’S COMMANDER”.

In the “RYAN’S COMMANDER”, the estates of the two Ryan brothers commenced action against the designer and builder of the “RYAN’S COMMANDER”, as well as the Attorney General of Canada, alleging negligence in the inspection of the vessel by Transport Canada after the vessel and the Ryan brothers were lost at sea while fishing. The Newfoundland Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission determined that the Ryan brothers were employees for the purposes of the provincial Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Act (WHSCA), and as such, their dependents were barred by the WHSCA from suing for damages. Their only recourse was compensation under the WHSCA.

However, both the Newfoundland Trial Court and Court of Appeal held that the provincial statute impinged upon Parliament’s jurisdiction over navigation and shipping, and was therefore constitutionally invalid. It also found that s. 6(2) of the Federal Marine Liability Act (MLA), which allows the estate of a deceased to sue in tort to recover damages, conflicted with the bar in the WHSCA against suing and that the Federal statute prevailed insofar as maritime workplaces were concerned.

The SCC was asked 1)whether the federal power over navigation and shipping made the claims by the Ryan Estates immune from the application of the prohibition against suit found in the provincial WHSCA and 2) if right to sue granted by the Federal MLA was paramount to the WHSCA such that the WHSCA did not apply to deaths at a maritime workplace.

The SCC held that while the WHSCA did trench on a protected core area of federal jurisdiction (navigation and shipping), it did not do so in a serious enough manner. The prohibition against employees and their dependents from suing employers did not sufficiently impair Parliament’s jurisdiction over navigation and shipping so as to render the prohibition unconstitutional when the injury or death occurred at a maritime workplace. There was no immunity from the WHSCA.

That conclusion is somewhat surprising, as it is difficult to imagine how a provincial statute which strips away statutory and common law rights to sue is not a serious impairment of federal jurisdiction particularly when the SCC has previously held that maritime negligence causing injury and death is a core element of navigation and shipping.

In maritime negligence law, a person’s right to sue for damages when suffering an injury is based on common law principles, and if he dies, the right of his estate and dependents to sue is a statutory provision found in the MLA.

The Court further found that there is no conflict between the MLA and the WHSCA. It held that s. 6(2) of the MLA, which provides that a dependant may bring a claim “under circumstances that would have entitled the person, if not deceased, to recover damages”, did not conflict with the WHSCA provision barring such an action, because if the deceased had not died but had just suffered an injury, he would not be entitled to bring an action pursuant to his common law right because of the WHSCA. The death of the deceased did not change the situation so as to permit a statutory right to sue to proceed where a common law right could not.

Most interestingly, the Court held that principle of federal paramountcy does not apply when the constitutional conflict is between federal maritime common law and a provincial statute. The Court decision suggests that provincial statutes may affect and overrule federal common law so long as they do not seriously impair Parliament’s jurisdiction with respect to navigation and shipping.

As a great deal of maritime law is based upon common law principles it remains to be seen how that reasoning will be applied in future cases.

In short, the situation with respect to compensation for claims for injured maritime workers has not changed from the way it has operated in Canada for many decades. However, the SCC’s reasons appear to support the Court’s continued retreat from the concept that maritime matters are exclusively governed by federal law.