Former MMA bosses plead guilty to federal charges in Lac-Mégantic tragedy

Former MMA employees, including some of the top American executives, have pleaded guilty to not ensuring that enough brakes were applied to stop the train that rolled into Lac-Mégantic and exploded. The Canadian subsidiary of the railway company was also fined $1 million for polluting a local river and lake.

Canadian subsidiary of railway company fined $1M for polluting river and lake

First responders deal with burning rail cars after a train derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Que., early July 6, 2013. (Transportation Safety Board of Canada/Reuters)

Some of the top brass of now-defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway pleaded guilty to federal charges at the Lac-Mégantic courthouse Monday and will have to pay thousands of dollars in fines.

They were charged with breaking parts of the railway safety and fisheries acts in connection with the deadly train explosion that killed 47 people in the small town nearly five years ago.

Six former MMA employees, including some of the top American executives and two of the three Canadian men who were acquitted of criminal charges last month, pleaded guilty to not testing the train's handbrakes after they were applied. They are: 

  • Robert Grindrod, CEO and president.
  • Lynne Labonté, general manager of transportation.
  • Kenneth Strout, director of operating practices.
  • Michael Horan, assistant director of operations.
  • Jean Demaître, operations manager.
  • Tom Harding, engineer.

Quebec court Judge Conrad Chapdelaine sentenced Harding to six months, to be served in the community. The other five were fined $50,000, the maximum amount allowable.

That money will go into a fund dedicated to rebuilding the town of Lac-Mégantic.

All six people were all acquitted of a second charge, of not applying a sufficient number of handbrakes, due to a lack of evidence on the part of the Crown.

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. and its Canadian subsidiary, Montréal Maine & Atlantic Canada, were acquitted of both charges.

$1M fine for polluting river, lake

The Canadian subsidiary (MMAC) was found guilty of a charge under the Fisheries Act related to polluting Rivière Chaudière and Lac Mégantic.

The employees named above, as well as Richard Labrie, a rail traffic controller, were acquitted of that charge.

Chapdelaine sentenced the company to pay $1 million, the maximum penalty, with the first $400,000 to be paid within six months. The money will go toward cleaning up the lake and river.

Failure to pay the fine could result in the seizure of property. When asked by Crown prosecutor Josée Pratte what will happen, given that the company is under bankruptcy protection, Chapdelaine said he is going to start by imposing the fine.

Pratte told the court the charges came after two years of investigations on the part of Environment Canada and Transport Canada, with help from the RCMP.

The guilty pleas were the result of a deal reached between the Crown and defence lawyers back in December.

Harding, Labrie satisfied

Harding's lawyer Charles Shearson said his client is happy to be able to turn the page on another chapter, though he admitted the six months' house arrest to which his client was sentenced will be hard for him psychologically.

"Mr. Harding recognizes it is a fitting sentence and accepts it fully, and given it was a process of negotiation, he has had time to prepare himself for those circumstances."
A lawyer for train engineer Thomas Harding, pictured here in a file photo, said his client had time to prepare for his sentence. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Labrie is the only former employee who has been declared innocent on all charges.

"Finally after 4½ years, I can go back to my routine incognito," he said after the sentencing.

But he said the amount of money he owes his lawyers is "an astronomical sum." Labrie said he hasn't had any financial backing since he was charged with criminal negligence causing death, for which he was acquitted last month, or for the charges in today's case.   

"I'm still smiling because I don't know the exact amount, but I could buy a house with what I owe."  

Money will be invested quickly, mayor says

Lac-Mégantic Mayor Julie Morin said the fact some of the money from the fines will go to the community is good news. She said it will go toward rebuilding the historical downtown.

"We will be able to manage it in the way we need it, and will invest it quickly," she said.

"We're happy, but we know the damage is greater than [$250,000]."

Jean Clusiault, whose daughter Kathy died in the explosion, said he thinks giving the money to the town is the right thing to do.  

"It's another chapter finished," he said, "but I don't think we'll ever seen any money from MMA."
Downtown Lac-Mégantic reopened to traffic for the first time since the deadly train derailment in 2016, but there is still work to be done. (Radio-Canada)

Employees acquitted

The charges dealt with today are not criminal, and are separate from the criminal trial that wrapped up last month.

In the early hours of July 6, 2013, a parked freight train carrying six million litres of crude oil rolled downhill into Lac-Mégantic, leading to the fatal explosion that also razed a major part of the town's centre.

In January, three rank-and-file MMA employees — Harding, Demaître and Labrie — were acquitted of charges of criminal negligence causing death in the tragedy.

Several family members of those killed in the disaster have long been calling for top MMA bosses to face justice, and that the men who stood trial weren't the people who needed to be held accountable.

The derailed tanker cars spilled nearly 5.7 million litres of crude oil into the water, soil and air of Lac-Mégantic. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

MMA had 'weak safety culture'

In its 2014 report into the Lac-Mégantic derailment, Canada's Transportation Safety Board said "no one individual, a single action or a single factor" caused the derailment.

But it chastised MMA for what it called a "weak safety culture" and panned Transport Canada for not keeping a proper regulatory eye on the railway.