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WORKERS’ COMPENSATION - Benefits - Compensability of injuries - Stress

Monday, October 19, 2020 @ 8:27 AM  

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Appeal by the employer from a decision of an Appeals Tribunal finding that the respondent was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for mental stress. The respondent claimed she was harassed at her workplace over time. After her work shoes were moved while she was on stress leave, the respondent made a claim for benefits for mental stress. At the time, she had been diagnosed with stress and anxiety associated with psychological harassment. The Commission applied Policy 21-103 allowing benefits for mental stress only if the disablement caused by mental stress was the result of an acute reaction to a traumatic event that arose out of and during the worker’s employment. Policy 21-103 defined PTSD as a condition described in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The traumatic event component of the analytical framework for assessing mental stress claims required either a diagnosis of PTSD, made according to the Manual criteria, or a determination that the person had suffered an objectively traumatic event. The Commission dismissed the claim. At the time of her appeal, the respondent had been diagnosed with PTSD. As a result, the Appeals Tribunal determined that the respondent was entitled to benefits. The Tribunal also went on to determine that psychological intimidation, culminating in the moving of her effects, caused the respondent to believe she was the victim of malice by her work colleagues. According to the Tribunal, such an incident was outside the scope of normal human experience and therefore qualified as a traumatic event. As a result, she was found to qualify for compensation under the Workers’ Compensation Act. The respondent was never exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in the workplace.

HELD: Appeal allowed. The Appeals Tribunal erred in law in relying on a diagnosis of PTSD that clearly did not meet the diagnostic criteria set out in the most current version of the Manual and in concluding that, on application of the objective test, the precipitous event was a traumatic one. The absence of exposure by the respondent to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in the workplace precluded a diagnosis in accordance with the Manual criteria. According to the decisions of this Court and the Commission’s policies, only a diagnosis of PTSD made in accordance with the Manual criteria displaced the need to assess whether the precipitous event qualified as a traumatic event under the objective test. Had the Appeals Tribunal applied the correct test to the facts of this case, it would necessarily have concluded that a reasonable person would not regard the moving of shoes, and the subsequent denial by fellow employees of having done so, to be the type of occurrence that could realistically result in an employee being unable to continue with his or her employment. The notion that the event must induce an acute reaction also displaced the notion that a compensation claim based on chronic stress qualified as a compensable accident.

New Brunswick Liquor Corp. v. Sauvageau, [2020] N.B.J. No. 214, New Brunswick Court of Appeal, J.C.M. Richard C.J.N.B. and K.A. Quigg and B.L. Baird JJ.A., September 17, 2020. Digest No. TLD-October192020002