Three Years Into COVID-19: The Pandemic Through the Eyes of Courts

Understanding the Law

March 13, 2020. The Quebec government declares a public health emergency. Without knowing it, we are living through the first moments of a pandemic that does not yet have a name.

Three years later, the COVID-19 pandemic remains an extraordinary event that continues to affect our everyday lives. Our editorial team has prepared a number of articles on the legal implications of the pandemic.

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the government put in place several public health measures. Some of these measures have been challenged in court by citizens. How did the courts respond?

State of emergency: renewal every 10 days

March 2020. The government declares a public health emergency throughout Quebec. The declaration of a state of emergency is one of the powers given to the provincial government by the Public Health Act. This power had never been used before the pandemic. It allows the restriction or prohibition of travel or gatherings, among other things.

August 2020. A citizen argues that the government does not have the right to unilaterally renew the state of emergency every 10 days. The citizen’s argument is based on a section of the Public Health Act, which states that the members of the National Assembly must approve renewals of more than 10 days. According to him, decrees that renew the state of emergency are invalid.

January 2022. The Quebec Court of Appeal confirms that the government has the right to renew the state of emergency for periods of 10 days, without the consent of the National Assembly.

In total, the government extended the state of emergency over 100 times between March 13, 2020, and June 1, 2022.

Curfew: public interest prevails

January 2021. At the beginning of the month, the government imposes a curfew. A few days later, the court are faced with a request to suspend its enforcement. The person requesting this suspension claimed that the curfew violated their individual rights and freedoms and, more generally, of those of Quebecers. This person deplores not being able to walk, run or drive alone or with people living in the same household.

February 2021. The evidence on file reveals that the adopted decree is in the public interest and for the common good. Its purpose is to protect the public from the risks associated with the spread of the virus. The judge concluded that the benefits of the curfew outweighed the violation of the individual rights and freedoms of the population.

However, the Superior Court allowed a request to suspend the enforcement of the curfew for people without housing. These people would have a harder time complying with the curfew because they don’t have a home. They were also at greater risk of being fined and unable to pay.

In brief

A government can limit individual rights and freedoms for legitimate reasons that are important to the welfare of the population. Citizens can ask a court to analyze these reasons and decide whether the limitation on individual rights is justified in a free and democratic society like ours.

Over the past 3 years, many people have caught COVID-19 at work and many of us have started working from home. How have the courts dealt with these issues?

Sometimes, catching COVID-19 can be a workplace accident

May 2020.  A man who works in the transportation sector notices he’s lost his sense of smell while fueling up his vehicle. He suspects he has COVID-19 so he gets tested. The results come back positive. The man files a claim with the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST or Quebec’s labour standards, pay equity and workplace health and safety board) claiming to have suffered a workplace accident. He is convinced that he caught the virus at work. He’s had close contact with co-workers over the past few days and some have also gotten sick.

October 2020. The CNESST considers that the man did not suffer a workplace accident. It refused his claim. The man then files a request with the Tribunal administratif du travail (TAT or administrative labour tribunal).

September 2021. The TAT judges in favor of the worker. The man had to show that he caught the virus in the course of a work-related accident. The evidence showed that there was an outbreak of COVID-19 at the man’s workplace at the time he got sick. The TAT determined that it was more likely than not that the infection was caught at work.

The TAT therefore concludes that contact with the COVID-19 virus can qualify as a sudden and unexpected event. An accident must be sudden and unexpected, among other criteria, to fall under the definition of a workplace accident.

Did you know? A “workplace accident” doesn’t necessarily result in being unable to work. This is not one of the criteria required for an accident to be considered a workplace accident.

Workplace accident at home: it’s possible

September 2020. A woman works from home. Her office is on the second floor. At the beginning of her lunch break, she heads downstairs to eat. She stumbles, falls and injures herself. Her employer does not believe that she’s suffered a workplace accident.

February 2021. The woman asks the CNESST to look at her file and it recognizes that she’s suffered a workplace accident. The employer contests this decision and files a request with the TAT.

December 2021. The TAT agrees with the CNESST’s decision. The woman suffered a workplace accident. A workplace accident is a sudden and unexpected event that occurs because of or in the course of work. The TAT concluded that the accident occurred while the woman was working.

At the time of the accident, the woman was in fact working from home: she had to fulfill her professional obligations to her employer. According to the work schedule determined by her employer, she could take breaks, including a lunch break. These breaks were considered part of the work organization established by the employer.

In brief

Under certain circumstances, catching COVID-19 may be considered a workplace accident that can be compensated. This depends on the facts of each case, including whether it can be proven that the exposure to the virus was a sudden and unexpected event.

Also, a person who works from home is protected by the same health and safety laws regarding workplace accidents. This means that even if you’re injured at home, your accident could be considered a workplace accident.