Former firefighter with PTSD sues Syncrude over suspended benefits, dismissal

CALGARY — A lawsuit filed by a former firefighter and paramedic against Syncrude Canada claims the oilsands giant wrongfully denied him benefits and fired him after he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder related to his job.

Mike Swan is seeking damages for lost compensation and benefits, improper paycheque deductions and in lieu of reasonable notice, says a statement of claim filed Dec. 19 in Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench.

The suit is also asking for ”moral or aggravated damages for bad faith throughout the employment relationship” as well as punitive damages.

Swan has also complained to the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

The allegations against Syncrude have not been proven in court and the company has not yet filed a statement of defence.

Swan, 44, began working for Syncrude in 2002 as a heavy equipment operator at its vast mining operation north of Fort McMurray, Alta. In 2007, he joined the company’s fire department, which sometimes responds to calls in the surrounding community.

“I was really good at it and loved it,” Swan said in an interview, a black lab named Jack who he’s training to be a service dog, at his feet.

Swan said his PTSD built up over time and there was no single event that triggered it. On the job he had to deal with anything from injuries and illnesses to an explosion on site, he said.

He said his adrenaline would ramp up every time and it was like flipping on a light.

“But if you flip that switch that many times, it gets stuck on and you’re always at that level of agitation or awareness.”

Swan was on his day off in Kelowna, B.C., in May 2016 when he got a call from work telling him to get back to Fort McMurray, where a fierce wildfire was rapidly spreading.

Unbeknownst to him at the time, his PTSD was in full force.

Swan was assigned to watch over a pharmacist who stayed behind during the city-wide evacuation to fill prescriptions. Swan said he would have been better off keeping busy fighting the blaze.

“I remember feeling like I was vibrating, like there was nothing worse to me than not actually fighting the fire, and sitting in that parking lot just breathing smoke in.”

Swan said the tipping point was when his then-fiancee left him, telling him she never knew what would set him off. His captain found him crying by an ambulance at work and suggested he get help through a company program.

“It was useless. They wanted me to eat a salad and get some sleep.”

His own psychologist, saying he’d likely had it for years, diagnosed Swan with severe PTSD in March 2017.

At first, Swan thought he’d be back on the job after a few weeks.

But the following May, his psychologist recommended he get full-time treatment, so he went off work.

The statement of claim says Swan received the proper benefits and compensation until October 2017, when a mix-up at the Workers’ Compensation Board led to him losing a week of benefits and top-up pay.

Then, in February of 2018, Syncrude told Swan he had to return to work within a week, even though his care team and the WCB did not think he was ready, the lawsuit claims. The statement of claim alleges his benefits and top-up payments were again suspended and improper deductions were made from his paycheque.

The suit is seeking a declaration that Syncrude’s actions amounted to constructive dismissal.

Syncrude fired Swan on Sept. 20 in what the lawsuit claims was wrongful dismissal.

Company spokesman Will Gibson declined to comment on Swan’s specific case, but said “Syncrude values and supports its employees.”

Swan said his disputes with Syncrude have worsened his mental health at a time when he should have been focused on getting better.

He said he’ll never work as a firefighter or paramedic again because of his condition and he’s exploring retraining options through the WCB.

The ordeal has ruined him financially, he added. His sister, with whom he’s been living in Calgary, has set up a GoFundMe page to help with legal and medical bills.

“Think about every mental-health campaign that’s going on right now. What are they telling us? Put your hand up. Ask for help,” he said.

“I asked for help. I’m still asking for help.”

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