Charges dropped against railroad for Lac-Mégantic catastrophe
This July 8, 2013 file photo provided by Surete du Quebec via the Canadian Press, shows wrecked oil tankers and debris from a runaway train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. Several oil train accidents, including one in Quebec, have highlighted the explosive properties of crude coming from booming oil shale fields on the Northern Plains. | Surete du Quebec / The Canadian Press via AP

QUEBEC CITY, Quebec (PAI)—Criminal charges have been dropped against Montreal, Maine, & Atlantic Railway (MMA), according to Quebec’s Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions (DPCP), for causing the deaths of 47 people when 73 cars of highly combustible crude oil derailed in the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic in 2013, turning the downtown into a raging inferno.

MMA locomotive engineer Tom Harding, 56, rail traffic controller Richard Labrie, 59, and operations manager Jean Demaître, 53, were tried on 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death—one count for each of the victims of the rail disaster. Harding and Labrie are Steelworkers members.

In January, a jury acquitted the three MMA employees after the defense successfully argued the rail workers were being blamed for a railroad with a weak safety culture and a clear failure of management to establish and enforce safe procedures.

Much of the case was based on a 2014 Canada Transportation Safety Board report that documented MMA’s “weak safety culture” and faulted Transport Canada for lax oversight of the carrier. MMA has since declared bankruptcy.

The DPCP said it no longer believes there is enough evidence to obtain a guilty verdict against MMA, which operated the train. Prosecutor Marie-Ève Phaneuf said, “With their verdict, the jurors sent a message that, by their assessment, the company’s agents had not behaved in a manner that markedly deviated from the standard of care that a reasonable person would have adopted under the same circumstances.”

This was rather ironic considering that the workers were acquitted precisely for the reason that the company’s weak safety culture and faulty procedures and practices were found to be guilty of causing the catastrophe.

This was the story not of careless, lazy workers but of a railroad carrying hazardous cargo that cut corners on safety and maintenance wherever it could and had a non-existent training program, and a government oversight agency that failed in its mission to protect workers and the public.

In other words, the company’s “agents” may not have “deviated from the standard of care,” but the company’s management certainly did.

For Tom Walsh, the lawyer who represented acquitted MMA locomotive engineer Tom Harding, the DPCP’s decision to skip the trial was a predictable one that reflects the reactive nature of cases such as these.

“The Crown [prosecution] should have gone after the company first to prove that they were serious in accusing them in the first place,” Walsh told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Saroja Coelho.

Walsh argued that if the prosecutors were seriously thinking about accountability, they would have aimed their criminal prosecutions at the senior officers of the company who made the decisions that resulted in the tragedy.

“It’s been sort of traditional in situations like this that the guy down at the end of the ladder…is held totally responsible for the whole of the situation,” Walsh said.

The three MMA employees and some company executives pled guilty of a lesser charge of not testing the train’s handbrakes after they were applied and were fined $50,000 ($39,750 USD). Harding was instead sentenced to six months, to be served in the community.

The main successful charge against the company was a $1 million ($795,000 USD) fine for polluting Rivière Chaudière and Lac-Mégantic under the Canadian Fisheries Act. The money will go toward cleaning up the lake and river.

The 47 human victims were not as lucky as the fish.

This article is from Confined Space; it appears here via PAI.


Jordan Barab
Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab, former deputy administrator of OSHA in the Obama administration and a top union health and safety official, edits Confined Space, a blog on worker safety and health.