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Is a national union liable for the negligence of its locals or their members?

February 18, 2010

CAW National not liable for the alleged negligence of a local union or its members, says Supreme Court

In Fullowka v. Pinkerton’s of Canada Ltd., the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed a negligence claim brought against the CAW-Canada, holding that the national union should not be held liable for the acts of an affiliated local union or its members.


During a labour dispute at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine in 1992, an employee named Roger Warren sneaked into the mine and deliberately set a bomb that killed nine miners who had crossed the picket line. Warren denied any knowledge of the bomb for many months, but eventually confessed and was convicted of nine counts of murder.

The families of the deceased miners sued Royal Oak (the owner of the mine), Pinkerton’s (which was providing security during the strike), the Government of the Northwest Territories and various individuals, alleging they were negligent in failing to prevent the crime.

The plaintiffs also sued the CAW-Canada, alleging that the national union had negligently incited Warren to commit his act and/or had negligently failed to prevent the crime.

However, at the time of the strike and the explosion, neither CAW-Canada nor any of its local unions represented the miners employed at the mine. Employees were represented by a local of the Canadian Association of Smelter and Allied Workers (CASAW). Two years after the explosion, CAW-Canada merged with CASAW-National, and CASAW, Local 4 became a CAW local.

When they commenced the lawsuit, the plaintiffs did not sue CASAW Local 4 or its successor, or CASAW-National. They sued only CAW-Canada.

One of the central issues in the case was the issue of union identity. The plaintiffs argued that the officials and members of Local 4 were negligent and that CAW-Canada was liable for that negligence because CASAW-National and Local 4 were the same legal entity. Since CASAW-National was liable for Local 4’s actions, and since CAW-Canada had inherited CASAW-National’s liabilities when the unions merged, CAW-National was liable for the acts or omissions of Local 4 during the strike.

Alternatively, the plaintiffs maintained that CAW-Canada was liable because it had paid for a union representative to assist Local 4 during the strike. They maintained that this union representative had taken control over the strike and essentially enslaved Local 4’s executive members. In fact, the representative had only visited Yellowknife for a total of 14 days on three occasions in the 4 months leading up to the explosion. The plaintiffs also argued that unions are vicariously liable for the actions of their members.

After an eight month trial, all of the defendants (with the exception of two individuals) were found liable. CAW-Canada was found liable in negligence for inciting, condoning or failing to do anything to stop violence among the striking employees. The trial judge held that Warren’s bomb was just one of a series of violent acts on and off the picket line and that the union should have done something to stop it. He also held that CAW-National was vicariously and jointly liable for the actions of Local 4’s members.

CAW-Canada appealed the decision, as did Pinkerton’s and the Government of the Northwest Territories. Royal Oak did not appeal.

On May 22, 2008, the Northwest Territories Court of Appeal overturned the trial decision, holding that none of the appellants could be held liable for Warren’s actions. The plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Supreme Court’s decision

On February 18, 2010, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal.

With respect to the claims against CAW-National, the Court upheld the Court of Appeal’s decision that CASAW-National and CASAW, Local 4 were separate legal entities. CASAW-National was not responsible for the actions of Local 4’s officials, directly or vicariously. Consequently, CAW-Canada did not assume Local 4’s obligations or liabilities when it merged with CASAW-National.

The Court also held that there was no basis for the trial judge to have concluded that CAW-Canada itself, through the representative it sent to Yellowknife or otherwise, incited or participated in Roger Warren’s actions or acted with Warren in some common design.

Read the decision.


Steven Barrett, Ethan Poskanzer

Practice Areas

Appeals & Judicial Review, Civil Litigation