Canadian Safety Reporter
Nov 5, 2018

Stroke while driving at work deserves workers’ compensation: Court

Ruptured aneurysm in worker’s brain while on sales call initially ruled not related to job, but Court of Appeal finds it happened in the course of employment
By Jeffrey R. Smith

A New Brunswick worker who suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm that caused a stroke while he was driving from a sales call has won workers’ compensation benefits for the injury.

Mike St-Onge was employed as a sales representative for M.P. Industriel, a supplier of safety equipment located in Edmunston, N.B. Much of St-Onge’s job involved being on the road visiting clients who purchased the company’s products.

On April 14, 2015, St-Onge was driving in his car after a sales call. He started to get a headache, so he decided to drive home to pick up some Tylenol before returning to the office. The headache quickly became extremely painful and he experienced weakness in his left arm. The arm weakness and distraction from the headache made it difficult to properly execute a left-hand turn and he ended up in a slow-speed collision with another vehicle.

St-Onge was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, where a CT scan revealed an intracerebral hemorrhage — bleeding in his brain tissue caused by a stroke that was life-threatening. An ambulance took him immediately to a hospital in Moncton, where he had emergency surgery on his brain.

The surgery was successful, but the hemorrhage caused hemiplegia — a paralysis of one side of the body. St-Onge underwent several medical and rehabilitation treatments, but was unable to overcome the paralysis. It was eventually determined that the hemorrhage was caused by the rupturing of an aneurysm in his brain.

St-Onge filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, but the New Brunswick Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Committee (WHSCC) rejected it, finding that because St-Onge had been on the way home instead of to the office, the injury hadn’t arisen out of and in the course of his employment, as required by the province’s Workers’ Compensation Act.

Pre-existing condition not related to work: WHSCC

St-Onge contested the decision, so the WHSCC re-evaluated his claim. It no longer determined he had been returning home, but it still denied the claim because it found St-Onge’s hemorrhage wasn’t caused by the collision — instead, the collision was caused by the hemorrhage — and therefore there was no work-related injury. St-Onge had been taking prescription steroids at the time and he had a family history of hypertension as a reaction to steroids, and the medical evidence on symptoms and causes of stroke didn’t relate to his employment.

St-Onge appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal, arguing that the ruptured aneurysm was an accident or chance event as defined under the act and both the accident and the disablement happened before the collision.

The tribunal found the circumstances met the definition of “accident” in the act, which refers to a “chance event occasioned by a physical or natural cause,” and “disablement arising out of and in the course of employment.” Since St-Onge was “a sales person who (was) required to operate his vehicle to perform his employment duties,” he was in the course of his employment at the time he had the hemorrhage, said the tribunal.

The tribunal also noted that an accident occurring in the course of employment is deemed to also rise out of that same employment if there is no evidence to the contrary, and even if St-Onge had a pre-existing condition that was worsened by the hemorrhage, he would be entitled to benefits.

The WHSCC appealed the tribunal’s decision before the New Brunswick Court of Appeal, arguing the tribunal erred in its interpretation of what qualified as in the course of employment, and it exceeded its jurisdiction in ruling that the act of driving was causally connected with St-Onge’s employment.

The court found that several requirements for benefits existed in these circumstances — St-Onge was a worker under the act, his employment was in an industry within the scope of the act, he suffered a personal injury, and the act didn’t specifically exclude him. The issues were whether his personal injury was caused by an accident as defined in the act, and if that accident arose out of and in the course of his employment.

Broad definition of workplace accident

The court noted that the act’s definition of “accident” was broader than the “common understanding” of the term by including events with physical or natural causes and any disablement arising out of and in the course of a worker’s employment. The tribunal was correct when it determined St-Onge’s hemorrhage was “a chance event” with a physical or natural cause.

The court agreed with the tribunal’s finding that at the time St-Onge suffered the hemorrhage, he was performing his duties as a sales representative, “a job which required him to operate his vehicle.” Once it was determined the injury happened in the course of employment, the tribunal didn’t have to find a nexus between the injury and employment without anything specifically refuting the legislative presumption that the two were linked, said the court.

The court found that it didn’t matter whether St-Onge had an aneurysm before the motor vehicle accident. The actual rupture of the aneurysm and the resulting hemorrhage injury — for which St-Onge was claiming compensation — occurred in the course of employment, while St-Onge was driving his vehicle on a sales call. In addition, the medical report did not provide a cause, so no non-work-related cause was offered to refute the presumption that the injury was in the course of employment.

The court determined the tribunal was correct when it found the injury occurred in the course of St-Onge’s employment. It may not have risen out of his employment, but that didn’t matter without specific evidence to prove that it wasn’t related. Since St-Onge was performing his job duties when driving on a sales call, that was enough to justify workers’ compensation benefits.

The court dismissed the appeal and upheld the tribunal’s decision to grant St-Onge entitlement to benefits.

For more information see:

Workplace Health Safety and Compensation Commission v. St-Onge, 2018 CarswellNB 361 (N.B. C.A.).