'Jury made the right decision,' says former MMA chairman of Lac-Mégantic verdict

The former railway executive in charge of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) is speaking out after the acquittal of three of his former employees charged with criminal negligence causing death in the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster.

Edward Burkhardt, former company chairman, defends accused after they were acquitted

Former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic chairman Edward Burkhardt said he's happy with the verdict in the Lac-Mégantic trial. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The former railway executive in charge of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) is speaking out after the acquittal of three of his former employees charged with criminal negligence causing death in the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster.

"I was happy when I heard the verdict. I think the jury made the right decision," Edward Burkhardt told Radio-Canada.

Locomotive engineer Tom Harding, 56, rail traffic controller Richard Labrie, 59, and operations manager Jean Demaître, 53, were all charged after the derailment of a runaway fuel train early on July 6, 2013 killed 47 people.

Burkhardt, who was reached by phone from his home in Chicago, was quick to defend the three men and their actions the night the train barrelled into downtown Lac-Mégantic, Que., and an explosion ripped through the town.

"If we were to put in prison everyone who made mistakes in life, then I think we would all already be there," he said. "That's why the definition of criminal negligence has to be so specific."

After the disaster, however, he made a public allegation that Harding hadn't done his job that night.
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac-­Mégantic in July 2013. (The Canadian Press)

The former president of the now-defunct MMA, which filed for bankruptcy soon after the disaster, has faced tough criticism since the disaster. In July 2013, his comments and delay in holding a press conference in the following days prompted a wave of anger from the residents of Lac-Mégantic.

In the wake of the tragedy, Burkhardt sustained significant personal financial losses and the company quickly declared bankruptcy. He also agreed to settle in a civil suit brought against him.

"It was the worst situation I was implicated in over the course of my career," he said.

Residents point to Burkhardt, MMA

While some residents in Lac-Mégantic said they supported the decision of the jury not to convict Harding, Labrie, and Demaître, others say they still blame the company, MMA.

Jean St. Pierre, the co-owner of Hotel Motel Le Château in the town, pointed to Burkhardt as having more responsibility for the disaster than the accused.

"No one thought they were the people to blame in this catastrophe," he said of the accused. "For sure there was negligence. But there were so many people higher than them who were negligent."

Yvon Rosa, who survived the explosion, said he was relieved when the verdict came down because he said the three facing charges "lived through hell."

He also criticized MMA, saying the company played a role in the tragedy.
Train engineer Thomas Harding leaves the courtroom after hearing the verdict on in Sherbrooke, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

"They worked for an irresponsible company that made them work at high risk," he said. "And when they pulled the elastic band, it broke. And, unfortunately, it broke in Lac-Mégantic."

While Burkhardt said he had tried to impose stricter safety regulations and policies at the company, the investigation of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada ruled otherwise.

The report from the TSB, which was released in 2014, said that MMA had "weak safety culture."

The former chairman also said that rail safety regulations have to be enforced in order to prevent another tragedy like the one that unfolded in Lac-Mégantic.

"The laws in place have to be enforced and followed to the letter," he said.

Two other federal cases related to the rail disaster are unlikely to proceed to the Federal Court of Canada, following an agreement between the Crown and the defence. All parties are scheduled to meet at the Lac-Mégantic courthouse in February.

With files from Elysha Enos, Radio-Canada and the Canadian Press