Immunity to suit status

Criminal acts are not activities related to employment for the purposes of the <i>Workers’ Compensation Act</i>

In 1992 the unionized employees of Giant Mine in Yellowknife were involved in an acrimonious dispute with the mine’s owner, Royal Oak Mines Inc. On May 23, 1992, Royal Oak locked out its unionized employees. At the same time the unionized employees went on strike. The mine continued to operate with the use of non-unionized employees supplied by Procon Miners Inc. as well as unionized employees who chose to cross the picket line and return to work.

On Sept. 18, 1992, a bomb blast occurred at Giant Mine resulting in the deaths of nine miners. Six of the deceased miners were employees of Royal Oak. Three of the deceased miners were employees of Procon. The dependants of the deceased miners claimed compensation under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

These claims were approved and paid by the Workers’ Compensation Board. An action was subsequently brought on behalf of the dependants of the nine deceased miners seeking damages against a number of Giant Mine’s unionized employees (referred to as Seeton et al.).

Between June 22, 1992, and July 3, 1992, Seeton et al. were dismissed from their employment with Royal Oak. However, after the incident on Sept. 18 a number of the unionized workers were reinstated.

On March 17, 1997, Seeton et al. applied to the board seeking a determination as to their immunity to suit status under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Seeton et al. argued that section 12(2) of the Act provides employees immunity from legal suit against them if the accident in question occurred while they were employees and acting in the course and scope of their employment in relation to the actions giving rise to the suit.

The matter was investigated and the investigator concluded that the claims against Seeton et al. were not statute- barred because Seeton et al. were not workers in the employ of Royal Oaks within the meaning of section 12(2) of the Act and because the alleged acts or omissions of Seeton et al. set forth in the claim did not arise out of or in the course of their employment.

Seeton et al. argued that they were workers in the employ of Royal Oak at the time of the accident. They relied on the terms of their collective agreement which provided that they were on a leave of service during the labour dispute. Although they were on leave they continued to be employees.

The Board argued that Seeton et al. were not workers in the employ of Royal Oak at the time of the accident and the alleged acts or omissions of Seeton et al. were not related to the course and scope of their employment with Royal Oak.

Seeton et al. appealed the decision of the investigator to the corporate board. The corporate board received further written submissions on behalf of Seeton et al. and convened a formal hearing on Aug. 18, 1998, to consider the applications for immunity to suit.

On June 30, 1999, the corporate board issued written reasons for its decision wherein it determined that the claims against Seeton et al. were not statute barred. The corporate board held that the immunity to suit provisions of the Act protected workers against causes of action that arose in relation to the conduct of their employment and that the claims against Seeton et al. did not arise out of acts or omissions in relation to their employment with Royal Oak.

The corporate board did not consider the issue of whether Seeton et al. were workers of Royal Oak within the meaning of the Act.

Seeton et al. then filed an application with the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories for an order setting aside and quashing the decision of the corporate board. The Court denied their application to set aside the decision of the corporate board finding no error in law and that the decision was not patently unreasonable.

Accordingly, the claims against Seeton et al. were permitted to continue.

For more information:

Seeton v. Northwest Territories (Workers’ Compensation Board), 2001 NWTSC 74.

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