By Teresa Mallam
Echo Wylies battle to survive did not end when she narrowly escaped death in an Oct. 3, 1987 head-on car crash. Her struggle continues to this day. Twenty years later, at age 45, Wylie is still angry about a decision by Workmens Compensation Board (WCB) now WorkSafe B.C. to refuse her disability claim.
Ever since her accident, the single mom has survived on social assistance and lived perilously close to the poverty line. Enough is enough. Now what she wants, she says, is for WCB to own up and allow her to live a better quality life. She blames what she calls a quasi-judicial body for dragging out the case so long, forcing her onto welfare.
It took years to find a doctor who knew what was wrong with me. In the meantime, I dont think tax payers should have had to support me. Why should they? Thats why employers and employees pay into the WCB fund in the first place.
Wylies case was clouded, said Prince George WorkSafe B.C. manager of client services Brett Hopson because of other injuries she suffered in a second accident - a pedestrian motor vehicle accident.
The judge in the ICBC matter heard evidence that Ms. Wylies injuries from her car accident which notably were mostly soft tissue injuries had been resolved. That was partly what WCB relied on in its decision, Hopson said. Wylie refutes that.
Thats wrong. My injuries from the first accident were not resolved. I never testified they were. This is more than a he said, she said. The facts are there, in the file.
Wylie has told her story hundreds of times to her friends, family, lawyers and WCB case workers but reliving it still brings tears to her eyes.
I was in my fifth year working for CN Rail, riding in the passenger seat of a CN crew cab when it collided head-on with a a semi truck, just outside Fort Langley. I could see the truck coming at us, so I tore off my seat belt and tried to save myself by climbing into the back and putting my arms over my head. The impact caused us to hit the trucks fuel tank. It bounced off hitting our back dullie (where trailer is hitched) and we ended up underneath the trailer. The truck was completely destroyed.
Wylie said WCB never looked at the severity of the car accident when considering her injuries. Following the crash, Wylie said she suffered memory loss, chronic pain, constant fatigue and post traumatic stress disorder. Her moods swung erratically.
It got so bad, I couldnt go anywhere. If I had to stand in line or something I would just blow up because I couldnt cope with stress. Im still a smart person but I cant carry on a conversation very long, I cant stay focused.
She lists her injuries which exist to this day.
My jaw has receded a half inch back into my head. They diagnosed whiplash right after the accident. I have a TMJ problem. My disc was stretched in my jaw, there was a bleeding vessel in my brain and what they now call a brain injury - the bones in my skull are overlapping at the site of the bleeding vessel.
Her injuries only added to her real problem, she says. Wylie wanted to work.
I sat around for 16 years not able to work. I felt useless.
During all this time, Wylie was raising a young son.
Welfare kept me on emergency funds for years. Thats just wrong, thats money that belongs to the taxpayers. The local womans fight has taken her to the offices of the Ministry of Labour, Law Society of B.C., Human Rights Commission, Workers Advisors, Ministry of Social Services and Housing, Northern Association of Injured and Disabled Workers, WCB Ombudsman, United Way, Prince George Brain Injured Group, several MLAs and the media.
In 2006, she requested access to her medical records and WCB files under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Over the years, shes seen numerous doctors and specialists. Shes consulted 23 lawyers about her case. Currently Prince George lawyer Bruce Kaun is looking into her file -- a file that, stacked on Wylies lap, is three feet high.
Files like this take a great deal of time, Kaun said Tuesday.
Still he understands the plight of people like Wylie and likes the challenge of helping clients in a seemingly uphill battle. Such files can take years to conclude, Kaun says, but they are also very satisfying.
Recent legislation changes have meant cases can be reopened if there is new evidence and that can be brought before a WCB (WorkSafe) review tribunal, he said. When a lot of time has passed it is often difficult to connect it to the original injury.
Kaun suggests injured workers become good record keepers.
They should keep a diary and record how they feel, their symptoms, trips to doctors. They should keep receipts for all costs related to their injury, even things like cab fares. I always advise people to deal only in writing to WCB or ICBC.
Meanwhile, Wylie waits in her trailer park and continues to write letters to all levels of government, interest groups, the media. She sends emails and makes telephone calls to anyone she thinks could help. For her its an issue of fairness and quality of life.
I feel that I have been robbed of years of my life. All I want is my independence and my life back, she said Tuesday, sitting on a park bench outside her home in a trailer park overlooking the Fraser River.
I believe I have work related injuries. Peoples taxes have been paying for me to live while the employer funded insurance policy denies my claim. I am a proud Canadian and I believe the medical and social systems have been made to pay for what I think is the WCBs responsibility since my accident. My son is 15 now. Hes grown up with this.
During her lengthy battle with WCB, former CN Rail worker Echo Wylie said shes talked to 23 lawyers but most of them have no time to read, let alone fight her case. So far, Prince George barrister Bruce Kaun is hanging in there. Kaun said hes seen many cases like Wylies that drag on for years.
One thing people have to remember, he said, is the history of WCB. Its not an insurance fund, as many people think. He said theres lots of horror stories like Wylies out there, the little guy against Goliath variety where lawyers have to wade through enormous files that take hours to digest and many more to litigate. Is 20 years a long time?
I had one that went back to the 1950s, he said.
Presently Kaun is reviewing Wylies file to see if theres any way he can assist her. In the meantime, she is left to ponder her fate.
Prince George WCB (WorkSafe) office manager of client services Brett Hopson agreed to talk with the Free Press last week after accident victim Echo Wylie gave him written permission to discuss her case. He thinks she was treated fairly.
Hopson agrees her file got caught up in backlogs and has been around probably as long as I have been at WCB 20 years. However, for about seven of those years, during the 1990s, Wylie had no contact with their office, he said. Hopson added that each year, hundreds of case files are processed in a timely fashion.
New rules introduced a few years ago have streamlined the process. Wileys case has issues which Hopson who was not the case worker on the file, would rather not discuss. However he does agree the appeals process took time on the part of both parties.
As far as I know, shes exhausted all her appeals, Hopson said.
I knew of the file but I only just read the file in its entirety for the first time the other day to prepare for this call [to the Free Press]. It took Hopson two days to read its contents and he can sift through files faster than most because hes familiar with the terms and forms. The hefty file, filled with thousands of pages of documents, medical reports, case workers information and letters would be daunting for anyone.