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Defence in Lac-Mégantic trial points finger at Transport Canada in assessing blame for rail disaster

The defence lawyer for one of the three men indicted for their roles in the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster told a Sherbrooke courtroom Friday the tragedy served as a wake-up call to Transport Canada, underscoring its chronic inertia.

Was rail traffic controller's reaction that of a guilty man, lawyer asks jury in closing arguments

Rail traffic controller Richard Labrie, seen here in a file photo, is one of three ex-railway employees on trial for criminal negligence causing 47 deaths, stemming from the 2013 derailment and explosions in Lac Megantic, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The defence lawyer for one of the three men indicted for their roles in the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster told a Sherbrooke courtroom Friday the tragedy served as a wake-up call to Transport Canada, underscoring its chronic inertia.

In closing arguments, Guy Poupart, the lawyer representing Richard Labrie, asked Quebec Superior Court Justice Gaétan Dumas and jurors to recall the words of Crown witness Kevin Mosher, who testified that the disaster acted as a catalyst in improving rail industry regulations.

"You heard this — there were amendments made to regulations" after the tragedy, said Poupart.

Labrie was the rail traffic controller on duty the night of the tragedy. He is charged with criminal negligence causing 47 deaths in connection with the derailment, as are former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) locomotive engineer Tom Harding and operations manager Jean Demaître.

Poupart spent much of Friday referring to audio recordings of a string of phone conversations his client had with different people in the hours leading up to the derailment, as well as those which took place in the aftermath of the ensuing inferno which engulfed the picturesque town.

"No one called into question whether or not the train had been immobilized properly," he said, pointing out the MMA employees had been working together for years and developed a mutual trust.

"The rail traffic controller has every right to assume a locomotive engineer properly secured his own train," Poupart said.

Referring to the Crown's closing arguments, Poupart said, "when they tell you Labrie should have asked Harding about how the train was secured, it's not only ignoring the rules, practices, reality, competence, but also the generalized attitude that the persons involved would have had."

The downtown core of Lac-Mégantic, Que., turned into an inferno when an MMA train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded on July 6, 2013. (Transportation Safety Board of Canada/Reuters)

Poupart told jurors the evidence produced by the prosecution against Labrie does not show he was criminally negligent "beyond all reasonable doubt."

"It does not demonstrate in any way that a rail traffic controller placed in the same position as Labrie and given the same information, would have acted any differently," he said.

Labrie devastated by tragedy

Poupart asked jurors to consider whether Labrie's distressed reaction to the tragedy on the morning it happened pointed to his indifference or whether it demonstrates he was consumed by the scale of the tragedy.

Poupart recalled the testimony of Crown witness Steve Jacques, his client's former MMA colleague who had replaced Labrie in Farnham the morning of the tragedy.  

Jacques had testified he didn't recognize the ordinarily organized Labrie when he got to work that morning.  

"He was green. There were papers everywhere," Jacques had testified. When he asked Labrie what happened, he'd told him to imagine the worst possible thing and said it was even worse than that.

"Ask yourselves if the state Jacques saw Labrie in on the morning of July 6 is a state that reflects [an employee] who is indifferent, or rather a man destroyed by the circumstances," said Poupart.

In his arguments to the jurors, Poupart reminded them the Crown made an error "in good faith" by initially claiming his client did not call the Canadian Transport Emergency Centre of Dangerous Goods after the derailment.

Labrie followed protocol and called the centre, Poupart said, a point he made earlier in the trial.

Poupart also told the jury as the lone rail traffic controller at the Farnham train station, Labrie could only rely on the information which was communicated to him.

"He has no control of this train: he has no way of knowing the possible existence of problems, of difficulties," said Poupart.   

"The only way is if he is transmitted this information."

Closing arguments for Harding begin Monday.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story reported the three defendants are charged with 47 counts each of criminal negligence causing death — one count for each person who died in the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster. In fact, prior to the trial, the Crown simplified the charge to a single count each of criminal negligence causing 47 deaths. The change has no bearing on the criteria used by the jury to render its verdict or on the possible sentence.
    Jan 15, 2018 7:11 PM ET