Does duty of care extend to the playing field?

By Jeffrey R. Smith ([email protected])

Workplace violence is a significant concern for employers, because of the disruption it can cause in the workplace — and its negative effects on productivity — as well as the liability workplace violence legislation and the courts place on employers'' shoulders. Provincial governments have been turning their attention to ways to combat workplace violence by passing legislation such as Ontario’s recent Bill 168, which puts heavy responsibility on employers to take measures to protect workers from workplace violence.

Courts are also taking the issue seriously, as evidenced in a recent Ontario case where Bell Canada was held liable for not properly investigating an incident where a manager pushed one of his subordinates into a filing cabinet during an argument. Though the original damages of $500,000 were reduced on appeal, Bell was still on the hook for more than $100,000 because it didn’t properly investigate the incident or address the assaulted employee’s state of mind, even though she went on stress leave.

As the provinces step up efforts to reduce workplace violence, employers are faced with more proactive obligations. For example, Bill 168 requires employers to assess their risks of workplace violence and investigate any incidents. In Ontario as well as other provinces, workplace violence doesn’t just include employee-on-employee violence, but also violence against employees from non-employees, such as customers. Ontario employers are also required to take measures to protect employees from domestic violence that could spread to the workplace.

However, what if the line defining the workplace is blurred? How liable are employers for violence that happens to employees away from the traditional workplace but while they are doing something work-related? Where do incidents such as carjacking a truck driver or robbing a cable technician fit?

Some time ago I heard about an incident in a work softball league where players from the two teams got into a fight. This is an interesting scenario because although it took place after work hours and the employees weren’t working, the companies sponsored the teams, which consisted of employees sporting the companies’ logos.

It could be argued these circumstances parallel those of a company-sponsored holiday party held at a venue outside of the workplace. It has been proven in court this kind of event can be considered an extension of the workplace and employers have a duty of care to protect employees from violence and harassment.

So if an employer sponsors a team of employees in a sports league, is the league considered work-related and does the employer have a duty of care to protect those employees from violence?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. For more infomration, visit

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