Worker’s compensation claim gets cerebral

Worker said higher burden of proof for mental stress was discriminatory

This instalment of You Make the Call features a worker who claimed workers’ compensation benefits for stress caused by a workplace accident.

Peter Plesner was an auxiliary plant operator for the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority in Port Moody, B.C. On Jan. 16, 2003, a natural gas pipeline ruptured when a truck ran over it. Plesner, who was about 50 feet away with other employees, saw a tall plume of gas shooting from the gas line. Alarms sounded and the employees began evacuating. Plesner claimed he thought the gas was going to cause an explosion.

However, the leak was contained and after waiting outside for a while, employees were allowed back inside. Plesner voluntarily worked overtime that day.

Two weeks after the incident, Plesner’s family physician thought he was stressed and referred him to a psychiatrist, though he didn’t see the pyschiatrist until more than four months later. Before then, in February 2003, Plesner was unable to work. He was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which was identified as the reason he couldn’t return to work. Plesner filed for workers’ compensation for mental stress, which was allowed under the province’s legislation and the Workers’ Compensation Board’s policy if the mental stress was caused by “an acute reaction to a sudden and unexpected traumatic event” at work, usually experienced or witnessed first-hand. Plesner claimed, with support from his doctor, that he had been coming under stress for the past five years at work, causing “mild psychotic features” and other personal issues, and the gas leak incident pushed him into PTSD.

The B.C. Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) rejected Plesner’s claim on the basis he did not experience an acute reaction to a sudden and unexpected traumatic situation. The WCB’s review division upheld the rejection, finding the gas line rupture could not be considered a traumatic event because it happened some distance from Plesner and he wasn’t involved in dealing with it. There were also no signs there would be an explosion as there was no gas around him. At most, it was a “moderately dangerous” situation that was quickly fixed.

The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal (WCAT) accepted Plesner was stressed and suffered from PTSD caused by the incident, but agreed with the earlier decisions that was not serious enough to qualify as traumatic. Plesner appealed, claiming the standards for proving disablement by mental stress were more stringent than for physical injury, resulting in discrimination against workers suffering from psychological injury who filed claims for workers’ compensation.

You Make the Call

Was Plesner entitled to compensation for the stress he suffered from the gas leak incident?
Was his stress not covered by workers’ compensation legislation and guidelines?

If you said Plesner was discriminated against and entitled to compensation for mental stress, you’re right. The B.C. Court of Appeal found the mental stress referred to in legislation and the WCB policy as eligible for compensation would naturally be that which causes a mental disability. Plesner, as he was unable to work, was clearly disabled because of his PTSD, said the court. However, he was treated differently because of his condition.

The court found WCB policy required claims for physical injuries to prove the injury occurred at work, while claims for mental injuries had to also establish they were caused by a traumatic event. As a result, those with mental disability had a “pre-existing disadvantage, stereotyping, prejudice and vulnerability,” which were grounds for discrimination under the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

The court set aside the earlier decisions and remitted Plesner’s claim to the WCAT. It also ruled the board’s policy provisions that contain the “traumatic event” requirement to be in contravention of the charter and were no longer in effect. See Plesner v. British Columbia Hydro & Power Authority, 2009 CarswellBC 1095 (B.C. C.A.).

Latest stories