Montreal

Mining deaths criminal trial '1st' in Canada, law expert says

Métanor is on trial for criminal negligence causing death after the drowning of miners Domenico Bollini, Bruno Goulet and Marc Guay, who descended in an elevator to the lowest level of the mine shaft in 2009 and were submerged.

Closing arguments are scheduled for 2017 in fatal workplace accident trial

The drownings of three miners happened at Métanor Resources' Bachelor Mine in 2009. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The fatal accident at Métanor Resources's Bachelor Lake mine seven years ago was the worst workplace accident in Quebec in the last 35 years.

And the prosecution of a company charged with criminal negligence causing death has gone to trial for the first time in Canadian history, said an expert in criminal negligence and liability.

Métanor is on trial in the drowning deaths of miners Domenico Bollini, Bruno Goulet and Marc Guay, who descended in an elevator to the lowest level of the mine shaft and were submerged.

"It's extremely rare" to see companies face criminal charges because of workplace accidents, said Jennifer Quaid, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa's law faculty. 

Quaid said the case is a first because the company has chosen to go to trial instead of pleading guilty.

Crown prosecutor Marc-André Roy has called more than 20 witnesses since the trial began in September.

Métanor Resources did not present any witnesses or its own evidence. Closing arguments are scheduled for next year.

The frozen bodies of the three miners were found in November 2009. (Jacques Boissinot/ Canadian Press)

Criminal liability for corporations

The mining company, which was operating in Desmaraisville, about 600 kilometres north of Montreal, was charged with criminal negligence causing death last March.

Quaid told CBC News the case is important "symbolically" and could also lead to raising safety awareness in the industry.

"We call this kind of conduct out because we think there's something wrong with it," said Quaid. "But making people pay money or firing a few symbolic people may not be a solution to the problem."

Quaid said the most useful aspect of a criminal prosecution going to trial is the ability for a judge to lay out rules and demands on companies to avoid any future accidents, if a company is found guilty.

'Serious and multiple' gaps in workplace safety

BolliniGoulet and Guay were experienced miners when they descended in the elevator to the lowest level of the mine shaft in October 2009.

Both the miners and Métanor had no idea that level of the mine had been filling with water for the previous nine days because of a missing bolt in the pumping system — nor that the alarm system which was supposed to warn them about a rise in water levels had been unplugged.

Mario St-Pierre, the engineer who prepared the province's workplace health and safety board report (known by its French acronym, CNESST), said "there were three main causes" of the accident. 

One of the causes was human error, however, St-Pierre said Quebec's workplace law can hold an employer responsible for the behaviour of its employees.

The deadly accident prompted a province-wide review of mining safety systems. (Jacques Boissinot/ Canadian Press)

Métanor Resources contested the board's fine of $15,000.

In 2013, Court of Quebec Judge Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré found the company guilty of violating workplace laws, citing "serious and multiple" gaps in the safety system at the Bachelor Lake mine.

Westray Law

Métanor Resources is being prosecuted under a fairly new section of the Criminal Code often referred to as the Westray Law.

The 2004 amendment extended liability for criminal negligence in the workplace, stemming from the deadly Westray Mine explosion in Plymouth, N.S., which killed 26 miners in 1992.

Quaid said taking a corporation to court on a criminal charge requires a completely different approach when it comes to analyzing evidence.

A candlelight ceremony marked the 10th anniversary of the Westray mine disaster in 2002. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"If you're going to bring a serious case against a company, you have to look at what was the decision-making process, how much knowledge there is about the failure rate of the technology, and if there should be a redundant safety system in place," said Quaid.

Quaid said to establish guilt, a judge has to find a company has acted, or failed to act in a way that's consistent with safety norms of similar companies.

"It's a comparison between what the accused did, and what a reasonable person in the circumstances would have done," said Quaid.

Clarifications

  • It is not the first time a Canadian company has been prosecuted under the Westray Law, however, as the story states, Métanor Resources is the first Canadian company to choose to go to trial rather than plead guilty.
    Dec 05, 2016 2:20 PM ET

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