In a recent decision with potentially far-reaching implications for Ontario employers, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal (“the Tribunal”) struck down the statutory limitations on workplace mental stress claims, on the basis that such limitations breach the equality rights under Section 15(1) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (“the Charter”).
Although the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act generally provides benefits to all workers who suffer injury or disease arising out of their employment (irrespective of the kind of ailment), certain provisions regarding mental stress which were enacted in 1998 restricted entitlement in particular circumstances (“the mental health exception”):
Exception, mental stress
(4) Except as provided in subsection (5), a worker is not entitled to benefits under the insurance plan for mental stress.
(5) A worker is entitled to benefits for mental stress that is an acute reaction to a sudden and unexpected traumatic event arising out of and in the course of his or her employment. However, the worker is not entitled to benefits for mental stress caused by his or her employer’s decisions or actions relating to the worker’s employment, including a decision to change the work to be performed or the working conditions, to discipline the worker or to terminate the employment.
The Tribunal conducted an extensive analysis of the history of the workers’ compensation in Ontario, the purposes of the mental health exception, the historical prejudice against mental illness, arriving at the conclusion that the mental health exception is an example of the historical injustice visited upon persons with mental health conditions. Ultimately, the Tribunal found that the statutory provisions created a distinction between different types of disability, in particular a distinction based on mental disability. The Tribunal also found that the mental health exception was not saved under s. 1 of the Charter based on their alleged purpose (limiting the costs imposed on the Accident Fund) nor was the limitation proportional to that alleged purpose.
The implications of, and potential financial exposure created by, the decision are significant. Older mental stress claims that were denied on the basis of the mental health exception may now be the subject of a reconsideration request by past unsuccessful claimants. New mental stress claims will likely be adjudicated by the Board (and the Tribunal) in the same fashion as any other claim; there would be no legal basis for the Board or Tribunal to deny such claims on the basis of the mental health exception.
The Government of Ontario is very likely to judicially review this decision, accordingly it may not be the final word on this issue.