Former bus driver Rashpal Atwal says he's on the verge of
suicide because WorkSafeBC has tied his life in knots.
"It's hard," the 64-year-old Atwal said, fighting back
tears. "I can't take it any more. I'm totally depressed.
"They've tried to cut me off financially from all
directions. When they do these kind of tactics, the person has nothing left to
them but to close his eyes and leave this world."
For 24 years, Atwal drove a Greyhound to help support his
family of six.
Twelve years ago, in 1995, he injured his knees lifting
His doctor said he could not go back to work as a bus
driver or, partly due to a poor education in his native India, be "gainfully
employed" at any other job.
WorkSafeBC, formerly the Workers Compensation Board,
agreed Atwal could not return as a driver and in 2002 its appeal panel awarded
him his full annual salary retroactive to the accident.
But he hasn't received that award because of a WorkSafe
investigation into alleged fraud by Atwal.
Last January, a Workers Compensation Appeals Tribunal
ruled Atwal had fraudulently obtained almost $40,000 in the late 1990s in
relation to his injury. And it also ruled he had materially helped run his
wife's now-defunct sewing business, which the Atwal family denies.
"The evidence [of fraud and ability to work] is long, hard
and undisputed," said Ian Munroe of WorkSafe.
But according to WorkSafe documents, Richmond prosecutors,
when asked by WorkSafe to file fraud charges against Atwal, warned the agency
of a "horror show" and "egg over our faces" if the matter were legally
Atwal was never charged.
Because of the WorkSafe ruling, says the family, Atwal
also has been denied a Greyhound pension and a federal disability pension.
When he lost his salary, he and his wife, Harbhajan, lost
their Richmond home because they couldn't make the payments. They moved to a
less-expensive home in Surrey. Harbhajan estimates the family has spent $40,000
But they have not given up. Atwal has filed for a judicial
review of the decisions in B.C. Supreme Court but may have to wait two more
years for the case to be heard.
Said their lawyer, Craig Paterson: "I've been doing this
[compensation cases] for over 30 years and I've never seen evidence like that
[body of alleged WorkSafe misdeeds].
"Just as a sign of how bad things are, I have 75 petitions
[to review WorkSafe decisions not to pay benefits] filed in B.C. Supreme Court
-- me alone. I'm staggered by it.
"What's clear is this man and his wife have led
phenomenally conscientious lives. They've raised four daughters, all of whom
have university educations. They have no criminal record, none of them. They
are not alcoholics or drug addicts. They are not social-welfare abusers."
Atwal said he went to Attorney-General Wally Oppal in June
2005 seeking help.
"I was kicked out of his office," Atwal said, recalling an
encounter with a constituency office employee who allegedly said, "'Do you
think Wally Oppal cares? He gets these [WorkSafe complaints] every day.'"
Atwal currently receives $102 a month in disability money
from WorkSafe. His bus driver's annual salary would be more than $40,000.
"He thinks he's a burden on his family," said his daughter
Susan Atwal, a personal-injury lawyer in Seattle. "I call him during the day
and he just starts crying.
"You have no idea how much he loved his job. This is not a
guy who's a malingerer."
Last year, an Abbotsford trucker committed suicide after
an unsuccessful, eight-year fight to win injury benefits. His suicide forced
WorkSafe to admit that, between 1996 and 2005, it paid out 18 claims for
suicide to the beneficiaries of injured workers.
The Atwal family claims a long list of breaches by
WorkSafe, including an employee posing as an RCMP officer, a threat to have
Atwal disbarred for her involvement in her father's
alleged fraud and a suggestion to Greyhound that it appeal WorkSafe's initial
ruling awarding Atwal his salary.
Acting WorkSafe president Ed Bates said the allegation
that an employee posed as an RCMP officer is based on "possible confusion over
who was who." He denied "any such conversation" to disbar Susan Atwal.
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WORKSAFEBC TOO AUTONOMOUS, SAYS
- More than two million B.C. workers are covered by
- In 2005, 188 workers were killed on the job.
- In 2006, 173,014 claims were registered. About seven per
cent were disallowed.
- Total claim costs in 2006 were $1.26 billion.
- Administration costs for 2005 were $363.6 million.
Each year, newspapers and politicians receive dozens of
calls from workers who feel unjustly treated by WorkSafe, but their stories are
complex, come with serious legal considerations and are therefore rarely
Vancouver lawyer Craig Paterson, who has dealt with
workers' compensation for 30 years, says WorkSafe's arm's length status from
government allows it to be investigator, judge and appeal court.
Paterson claims the framework limits possible patronage
awards but also lets cabinet ignore complaints, saying "we can't
Labour Minister Olga Ilich says WorkSafe "work[s] as well
as can be expected," adding, "but we are always looking for ways to make it
Ilich said injured workers who have exhausted the WorkSafe
appeal process can appeal to the independent Workers Compensation Appeal
Tribunal and B.C. Supreme Court for a judicial review.
Surrey-Newton NDP MLA Harry Bains said the number of
workers denied compensation suggests "the whole system is a mess."
"I'm looking at going to the house and asking for a public