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Bullied to death? PEI WCB awards benefits to widow after finding a link between workplace bullying and fatal heart attack

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The Workers Compensation Board of Prince Edward Island recently awarded WCB benefits to the widow of a worker who died of a heart attack in November 2013. The worker had suffered a workplace back injury a few months earlier and had recently returned to work. According to the widow’s submissions to the WCB, the worker was bullied at work by his supervisor and did not feel he was receiving the proper support from his employer.

The worker’s family had initially approached the WCB about the availability of benefits, but were advised that because the death was not caused by a workplace injury, benefits were not available to them. The worker’s estate, widow and children subsequently commenced a court action against the employer and supervisor claiming damages. The claim alleged that the worker died from heart failure as a result of workplace bullying, and that the work conditions led to stress, anxiety and physical symptoms which ultimately caused his fatal heart attack.

The Supreme Court of PEI initially dismissed the action on the basis that it did not have jurisdiction as there was a collective agreement in place that governed, and so there were other remedies available to the plaintiffs including grievance arbitration and a WCB claim. On appeal, the PEI Court of Appeal reversed the decision, finding that the PEI Fatal Accidents Act did give the Court jurisdiction over the claim brought by the dependents. The Court of Appeal also considered whether a stay was appropriate on the basis that the claim was within the jurisdiction of the Workers Compensation Act. However, the Court was unable to decide that issue on the limited record, reminding the parties that the WCB can adjudicate and determine whether a right of action is removed by the Workers Compensation Act.

The plaintiffs returned to the WCB seeking a determination. The WCB confirmed that a workplace accident could include bullying and harassment. After receiving submissions from the parties, the WCB determined that the worker’s death was linked to workplace bullying and harassment, thus entitling the widow to benefits. The employer has filed an appeal with the WCB so this is likely not the last word.

While WCB policies may vary across the country, the basic premise behind WCB benefits is the same – the historic trade off whereby employers fund a no-fault insurance scheme to compensate injured workers for workplace injuries and in return, workers give up the right to sue the employer. In order for a claim to be compensable, there must have been a workplace accident.

In Alberta, the WCB’s cardiac policy states that in order for cardiac claims to be compensable:

  • there must be evidence of occupational exposure to factors or events known or presumed to be associated with heart problems; and
  • the time period between the occupational exposure and the onset of the cardiac condition is such that a relationship can be established.

The policy also list some examples of occupational exposures which can cause cardiac conditions, including psychological causes, involving exposure to significant and acute psychological stress.

Therefore, while the PEI decision appears to be a unique case, with the proper facts and medical evidence, and the relatively recent focus on issues of workplace bullying, we can expect to see more claims for benefits relating to workplace bullying and harassment. In the meantime, employers should ensure that they have (and follow!) appropriate policies and procedures in place to address workplace bullying and harassment.

The Court of Appeal decision can be found here.