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The Supreme Court has ruled against a claim for compensation by the widows of nine miners who were killed during a labour dispute at a Yellowknife gold mine in 1992. ((Donna Lee/CBC))

The lawyer for the widows of nine Giant Mine miners who were killed in a bombing during a 1992 labour dispute says his clients are shocked to learn Canada's top court has rejected their claim for compensation.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Thursday that the trial judge erred by attributing responsibility for the miners' deaths to Pinkerton's — the security firm hired to protect the Yellowknife mine site — the Northwest Territories government and the national union representing the striking workers.

"While the trial judge was correct in finding that both Pinkerton’s and the territorial government owed the murdered miners a duty of care, he erred in finding that they did not meet the requisite standard of care," the court ruled.

The top court also ruled that the National Automobile, Aerospace, Transportation and General Workers Union of Canada — now known as the Canadian Auto Workers — was not responsible for the actions of its local members.

"Many of the widows are just devastated by this decision," Jeff Champion, the lawyer for the miners' widows, told CBC News after the court's ruling was handed down Thursday.

"There certainly was this hope that the losses that they have suffered as a result of the tragedy would have been recognized. And that's very difficult, I think, for the families."

Striking miner serving life sentence

The miners — men who had crossed the picket line at the Giant Mine or had been hired as replacement workers — were killed when a bomb exploded underground on the morning of Sept. 18, 1992.

A striking miner, Roger Warren, was convicted in 1995 of nine counts of second-degree murder in the blast. He is serving a life sentence in a British Columbia prison.

Warren will be eligible for day parole in eight months, but an official with the National Parole Board told CBC News he has yet to apply for it.

Widows of the victims launched a wrongful death lawsuit, claiming that Pinkerton's had a duty to protect the replacement workers and that the territorial government should have shut down the mine because of the escalating violence.

The widows also claimed the local union representing the striking workers and the national union were responsible for inciting violence.

In 2004, the Northwest Territories Supreme Court agreed, ruling these parties shared responsibility for the deaths. The ruling, made by N.W.T. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Lutz, ordered the defendants to pay $10.7 million in damages to the miners' widows.

'Odd case': government lawyer

But the decision was overturned by the N.W.T. Court of Appeal, which stated that although all the defendants named in the lawsuit were negligent in one way or another, this negligence ultimately did not cause the nine deaths.

The appeal court ruled that the miners' deaths were the result of one unforeseeable act — the trespass and setting of the explosion by Warren.

"It was an odd case at the outset because we always knew who killed these miners," said Peter Gibson, the lawyer representing the N.W.T. government.

"The proposition that somebody else could have and should have stopped him was a difficult one."

The top court also dismissed an appeal by James O'Neil, who alleged he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after he discovered the dismembered bodies of the nine slain miners.

As well, the Supreme Court awarded the defendants costs for a legal battle that spanned 16 years.

Commission on the hook

The widows' lawsuit was financed and directed by the Northwest Territories Workers Compensation Board — currently known as the Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission — which will now have to pay not only what it spent on the legal battle, but also at least a portion of the legal costs the defendents racked up over the years.

"There were millions and millions of dollars spent by the Workers Compensation Board in an attempt to put liability on, amongst others, the CAW," said Louis Gottheil, the lawyer representing the Canadian Auto Workers union.

About five years ago, lawyers for the compensation commission said it had spent $7.2 million on the lawsuit at that point.

In a statement released late Thursday, Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission CEO Anne Clark said board officials are "disappointed with the outcome" of the Supreme Court case but "believe it was necessary to pursue this civil action."

"We hope the families will take some comfort knowing the decision removes any legal uncertainty in this tragedy," Clark stated.

Since the commission launched the civil lawsuit in 1994, it had been paying compensation to the deceased miners' families. That compensation will continue to be paid indefinitely, according to officials.