Addressing Workplace Hazards: Law To Be Clarified By Alberta’s Highest Court

by Dentons

The Alberta Court of Appeal has agreed to hear an employer’s appeal of a judgment of the Court of Queen’s Bench which overturned acquittals, by a Provincial Court judge, of two charges under the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Act.

A fatal incident occurred involving a “calf roping machine” at a Stampede Week party event hosted by the employer in 2007. A young software developer who was helping to operate the machine was struck in the head by a steel lever and later died from the injuries. Following an investigation into the incident, the employer was charged with failing to ensure, as far as it was reasonably practicable to do so, the health and safety of its worker and failing to ensure that all equipment used at the work site would safely perform the function for which it was intended or designed.

We recently posted an update of this case describing the appeal decision in R. v. XI Technologies Inc., 2012 ABQB 549. The Court of Queen’s Bench overturned the two “not guilty” verdicts of the trial judge. On the evidence, the trial judge found that the employer had raise a successful due diligence defence and found the employer “not guilty” of the charges. The trial judge concluded that while the employer had identified certain hazards arising out of the operation of the calf roping machine, which was not functioning properly at the time, the employer had put in place operating procedures which diminished the risk to the point that a reasonable person would conclude that it was safe to continue with operating the machine in accordance with the adopted procedures. The Crown appealed and the verdicts were overturned. The appeal court disagreed, found the verdict of the trial judge to be unreasonable, and found that on the evidence due diligence on the part of the employer could not be established. The appeal court judge found that the preventative measures adopted by the employer to respond to the hazard were not adequate to address the risk and, as such, the machine ought to have been placed out of service.

In late November, the employer applied to certify that an appeal lies to the Alberta Court of Appeal on the basis that the case involves a question of law of sufficient importance to justify a further appeal. In granting leave to appeal, Justice O’Brien confirmed that the two-part test was met by the employer, which required that the appeal would involve a question of law as well as and a matter that was of sufficient public importance to warrant an appeal.

Justice O’Brien agreed that an issue of law is raised where there is an issue of whether a verdict is reasonable and can be supported by the evidence. Most notably, Justice O’Brien confirmed that an issue of law arises with respect to an employer’s legal obligations regarding hazard identification and preventative steps; in particular, clarification in the law is required as to where the employer may draw a line in the risk versus hazard analysis in determining what preventative steps are reasonable in circumstances where the harm may be likely but minor versus where the harm is extremely unlikely but may result in serious consequences. This question involves the proper interpretation and application of the concepts of “risk” versus “hazard” and how they relate to foreseeability. In this regard, reference was made to the appeal court judge’s interpretation and application of the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision in R. v. Rio Algom (1988), 66 OR (2d) 674 with respect to the test of whether a reasonable person would have foreseen the potential danger. From this, Justice O’Brien granted leave to appeal because he considered that the extent to which an employer may rely upon operating procedures to mitigate an identified risk was a matter of general public importance.

The decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal in this matter is expected to be of significant importance to employers as we expect the law will be clarified in relation to specifying the degree of hazard analysis and identification that must be taken and the corresponding level of precautions or preventative steps that must be implemented.

The Reasons for Decision regarding the application to certify that an appeal lies to the Court of Appeal is found at R. v. XI Technologies Inc., 2012 ABCA 368.

Stay tuned.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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