British Columbia

B.C. labour group wants prosecutor devoted to workplace deaths after collapse of major criminal case

The B.C. Federation of Labour is calling for immediate action to protect workers after the collapse of a high-profile criminal trial related to a worker’s death.

Criminal negligence charges dropped in relation to Sam Fitzpatrick's death a week before trial

Sam Fitzpatrick's younger brother Arlen, left, was working beside Sam, right, when he was killed. (Mike Pearson)

The B.C. Federation of Labour is calling for immediate action to protect workers after the collapse of a high-profile criminal trial related to a worker's death.

The labour organization's president, Laird Cronk, described the decision this week to stay charges against Peter Kiewit Sons and two former managers as a "profound failure" of the justice system.

The trial for criminal negligence in the 2009 death of Sam Fitzpatrick was supposed to begin next week.

"Justice delayed is justice denied, and the unconscionable delays, insufficient resources and organizational breakdowns in investigating Sam Fitzpatrick's death have compounded tragedy upon tragedy," Cronk said in a press release. 

"A system that can't effectively investigate and prosecute negligent employers endangers workers across the province."

He said he wanted to see the B.C. government immediately dedicate a prosecutor to deal with workplace injuries and deaths, train police on the law and make police investigations mandatory when a worker is killed or seriously injured.

Fitzpatrick was 24 years old when he was killed by a falling boulder on a Kiewit worksite near Toba Inlet, north of Powell River on B.C.'s Central Coast. His younger brother was working next to him and watched it happen.

Just one day before the fatal rockfall, another boulder had tumbled down the same steep rock face, seriously damaging a piece of heavy equipment. A WorkSafeBC investigation later found that Kiewit had been running the site with a "reckless disregard" for safety.

Sam Fitzpatrick, 24, was killed by a falling boulder on a Kiewit worksite in B.C.'s Toba Inlet on Feb. 22, 2009. (Christine Tamburri)

The RCMP opened a criminal investigation in 2014 in response to campaigning by Fitzpatrick's father and the United Steelworkers, and charges of criminal negligence causing death were approved five years later.

But on Tuesday, the B.C. Prosecution Service announced that all charges had been stayed because the Crown no longer believed convictions were likely.

A statement from the prosecution service pointed to the death of an expert witness and the shifting memories of witnesses in the 12 years since Fitzpatrick's death as reasons for the decision to drop the case. 

Cronk said the decision shows how hard it is for workers to seek justice, despite the 2004 Westray Law, which allows employers to be held criminally liable for safety violations that cause injury or death.

"Without timely investigation and charges, the Westray Law's penalties are meaningless. The message to negligent employers should be 'Kill a worker, go to jail,' not 'Just wait it out,' " Cronk said.

In 2011, WorkSafeBC levied a $250,000 fine against Kiewit for violations of occupational health and safety regulations related to Fitzpatrick's death.

The fine was later reduced to $100,000 by the Workers Compensation Appeal Tribunal, following an appeal by Kiewit that was supported by Fitzpatrick's union, the Christian Labour Association of Canada.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is a Vancouver-based journalist for CBC News. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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