Lac-Mégantic jury urged to 'use common sense' in deliberations in case against locomotive engineer

After a trial that ran more than three months, the Crown took just two and a half hours to present its closing arguments in the case against the three men charged in connection with the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster.

Crown wraps closing arguments against Tom Harding, fellow former MMA workers Richard Labrie, Jean Demaître

Crown prosecutor Sacha Blais spent two and a half hours to make his closing arguments against the three men accused of criminal negligence causing death in relation to the Lac-Mégantic disaster on Jan. 3, 2018. (Alison Brunette/CBC)

After a three-month-long trial, the Crown took just two and a half hours to present its closing arguments in the case against the three men charged in connection with the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster.

Prosecutor Sacha Blais wasted no time going over the litany of evidence the Crown has presented against locomotive engineer Thomas Harding.

Harding is one of three former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) employees facing a charge of criminal negligence causing 47 deaths, along with rail traffic controller Richard Labrie and operations manager Jean Demaître.  

It was the prosecution's last chance to persuade the jury the three men were each, to some degree, responsible for the runaway train, which derailed and exploded, setting ablaze downtown Lac-Mégantic, Que., and killing 47 people early on July 6, 2013.  

Blais told jurors they would have to consider the circumstances and the actions of each man to determine if there is criminal negligence.

"When analyzing the evidence, I will ask you to use common sense, logic and your life experience," he said.

"For example, when I go scuba diving with sharks, the danger is greater than if I'm swimming in a pool, lounging on an air mattress."

An employee who does not respect the rules, Blais argued, is "reckless since he disregards the potential risk."

"When speaking of 10,000 tonnes of hazardous materials, should we expect more vigilance, like a surgeon?"

The trial resumed Wednesday before a packed courtroom in Sherbrooke, Que., after a three-week break.

Train driver Thomas Harding, left, is one of three ex-railway employees on trial in Sherbrooke, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Number of handbrakes key factor

In his closing arguments, Blais reiterated that Harding did not properly secure the train on a downward slope in Nantes, 12 kilometres from Lac-Mégantic, before leaving it idling on the tracks for the night on July 5.  

Throughout the trial, the Crown reminded the jury that Harding had only applied seven handbrakes to the 73-car fuel train, despite regulations stipulating he should have set a minimum of nine handbrakes.

Blais told jurors Harding chose instead to rely on the locomotive's air brakes, which was against the rules.

Blais also referred to the testimony of expert witness Stephen Callaghan, who testified double the number of handbrakes should have been applied.

He pointed out that, according to data retrieved from the train's black box, Harding never performed a mandatory brake efficiency test to see if the handbrakes he'd applied would hold the train.

He told jurors Harding also made a mistake by not telling Labrie, the rail traffic controller, that he'd had problems with the locomotive on the way to Nantes and that it had been spewing oil.

Earlier in the trial, the jury heard how a fire broke out on the lead locomotive Harding had been driving just minutes after he left it idling, and when firefighters arrived on the scene, they shut down the locomotive, which had been supplying power to compressor for the air brakes.

"How was [Harding] unaware there was nothing left to hold the train?" Blais asked the jury Wednesday

"According to Callaghan, air-brake systems are not reliable, if the compressor is shut down, the system loses air," he said.

Several witnesses called by the Crown described Harding as an experienced, knowledgeable and helpful co-worker, which the Crown alluded to in his arguments.

"Despite all comments on Harding, on July 5, he failed to do his job," Blais told the jury.

"A careful engineer would have foreseen the danger."

Labrie ill-informed, Crown contends

The prosecution spent just under two hours presenting its final arguments in the case against Harding, and about 20 minutes each on the other two accused, Labrie and Demaître.

Blais told the jury as the rail traffic controller on duty the night of the tragedy, Labrie was in charge of supervising the railway operations.

Labrie's fault lay in being ill-informed, Blais said.

Earlier in the trial, the jury heard an audio recording of a conversation between Harding and Labrie that took place after Harding arrived with the ill-fated train in Nantes on the night of July 5.  

"Labrie should have asked Harding if there were enough brakes to hold the train," Blais told jurors.

Blais said Labrie also didn't ask for any information when he initially received a call from a 911 dispatcher, informing him there was a fire on the locomotive, less than an hour before the deadly disaster.

Labrie decided to send an MMA track-maintenance foreman who lived in Lac-Mégantic, Jean-Noël Busque, to inspect the train once firefighters had left, but Blais told the jury that was not the right move.

Referring to another audio recording played for jurors earlier in the trial, Blais said Harding had asked Labrie if he should head back to Nantes to check on the train, but Labrie had told him not to.   

"Harding was 10 minutes away, and he was the qualified employee. Not Busque. Don't you think this was the proper thing to do?" Blais asked the jury.

"This is not a detail," Blais went on. "It's the key to the whole thing, because the person who ensures Harding did his job is Labrie," said Blais.  

"He could have avoided the deaths of 47 people."

Demaître ignored mechanical problems, says Crown

Finally, Blais turned to the evidence mounted against former operations manager Jean Demaître, telling the jury that as a manager, Demaître should have been proactive.

The court heard the testimony of locomotive engineer François Daigle, who had reported a problem with the lead locomotive involved in the disaster the day before the tragedy.

"He did not resolve the issue reported by Daigle," Blais said.

Referring to an audio recording entered as evidence in which Labrie reached Demaître at home to tell him about the locomotive fire, Blais said Demaître was also ill-informed.

"Don't you think Demaître should have asked more questions to have a complete picture?" Blais asked the jury.   

"He did not ask questions and instead said he would leave his phone where there is no signal,"  he said, referring to a joke Demaître had made when Labrie phoned him.

"A supervisor should have ensured all safety," concluded Blais.

Defence lawyers for the three accused are set to make their arguments Thursday.

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 7:09 PM ET