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The HR Space: Ontario Court Considers Limitation Periods in Occupational Health and Safety Legislation

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Labour, Employment and Human Rights Bulletin

The HR Space is edited by Louise Béchamp, Karen M. Sargeant and Brian P. Smeenk.

Employers and others are generally protected by actions against them which occur outside of limitation periods. That applies to charges under occupational health and safety legislation too. But when do those limitation periods begin to run? A recent decision of the Ontario Court of Justice in R. v. Corporation (City of Guelph) (PDF) has said they may begin to run at different times for different entities. In this case, the court said that although the limitation period in the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (the “OHSA”) began to run, for the employer, when the accident occurred, it began to run much sooner for the architect and engineer involved in the construction of the project that led to the accident. As such, charges could proceed against the employer, but not the architect or engineer.

Background Facts

In 2003, the City of Guelph undertook a project at one of its parks that involved the erection of certain buildings, including washrooms. There was both an architect and a professional engineer involved in the project. The drawings for the project were prepared and approved by the architect, and the structural design prepared and approved by the professional engineer. Construction on the project was completed on June 18, 2004.

In June of 2009, a fourteen year-old student was killed when a concrete wall in the women’s washroom at the park fell on her. 

The Charging Provisions

The architect and engineer were both charged under Section 31(2) of the OHSA which creates an offence if a worker is endangered as a result of advice given or a certification required under the OHSA that is made negligently or incompetently. Section 69 of the OHSA provides a one-year limitation period on prosecutions from the last act or default upon which the prosecution is based. 

Although the student was not an employee, the City of Guelph was nevertheless charged with failing, as an employer, to ensure that a wall or other part of a workplace was capable of supporting all loads to which it could be subjected.

The Legal Arguments

The architect and professional engineer argued that the charges against them should be dismissed as out of time. They argued that the charges were laid more than one year after the last act or default upon which the prosecution is based had occurred. In response, the Ministry of Labour argued that the charging provisions were continuing offences and the limitation period did not begin to run until the collapse of the wall, which was less than a year prior to the charges being laid. The Ministry also argued that the principle of “discoverability” applied to the offences and that the limitation period did not begin to run until the wall collapsed because that is when the negligence was discovered.

The Decision

To make its decision, Justice Epstein said it was necessary to determine what it was that the defendants did to bring about the charges. He concluded that, with respect to the architect and engineer, the allegation was that they provided negligent or incompetent advice which endangered the student. That advice occurred years before collapse of the wall, and neither the architect nor the engineer were involved in any way with the workplace within the year preceding the laying of charges.

Justice Epstein also rejected the government’s argument that the offence only crystallizes when an individual is endangered as a result of the advice. Further, Justice Epstein rejected the discoverability argument, noting that unlike other statutes the OHSA does not include a discoverability principle.

But the architect’s and engineer’s argument was not available to the City of Guelph. The charge against the City under Section 25(1)(a) did not relate to a single act and was not tied to the construction process. Rather it imposed a duty on the City, in its role as employer, to ensure the workplace is maintained in a safe manner. This obligation, the Court said, is one that continued beyond any construction and endured for as the long as the site remained a workplace.

On this basis, the charges against the architect and engineer, but not the City of Guelph, were dismissed as having been laid outside the limitation period. 

Application to Employers

Given that many jurisdictions across Canada have similarly-worded provisions imposing liability on professionals, such as architects and engineers, the decision will provide some comfort to those parties that they cannot be found liable for advice given more than one year after the advice is rendered. However, the same does not apply to employers.  Instead, employers have a continuing obligation to ensure their workplaces are maintained in a safe manner, an obligation that likely lasts until the workplaces stop being workplaces.

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