Sudbury case shows Westray not working, says labour law expert and union leader

The court ruling in a case this week involving the death of a Sudbury worker is raising questions about the so-called Westray law.

Rainbow Concrete pleads guilty in worker death, while charges dropped against owner

Rainbow Concrete pleaded guilty to criminal negligence in the death of a truck driver on its property in 2017, but charges against the company's owner Boris Naneff were dropped. (Kate Rutherford/CBC)

The court ruling in a case this week involving the death of a Sudbury worker is raising questions about the so-called Westray law.

It was brought in 15 years ago in the wake of the Westray mining disaster in Nova Scotia, allowing for companies and their directors to be charged in deaths of workers.

That's what saw Rainbow Concrete and its owner Boris Naneff charged last year in the crushing death of a Sudbury truck driver back in 2017.

This week, the company pleaded guilty and paid a $1,000 fine, plus $200,000 to the man's family, but the criminal charges against Naneff were dropped, as were some 12 provincial offences charges.

Rainbow Concrete's lawyer says he didn't believe there was enough evidence to convict the company's owner on criminal negligence.

'Unbelievable and worrisome'

University of Ottawa criminologist Steven Bittle, who has written extensively on Westray and workplace safety, says this is another example of how the law isn't functioning as it was intended. 

"And that's led to many people being worried that what we're seeing is the company taking the fall so to speak for cases where there is negligence involved and somebody's killed," says Bittle.

He says when the Westray provision was passed in 2004, it was meant to hold the directors of large corporations accountable, but instead charges against individuals are rare and convictions even more rare.

Bittle says it tends to be the directors of smaller companies that are charged and convicted, because the chain of command is easier to prove in court. 

"It's hard to imagine any other scenario in which there was criminal legislation introduced and when we see the law not being used or not working, the federal government doesn't intervene at all," says Bittle. 

"I find that unbelievable and worrisome."

The United Steelworkers pushed for the law to be passed in the first place and continue to lobby for it to be enforced more often.

National director Ken Neumann says they are working on providing more training to police investigators and Crown prosecutors, so they will apply the same "forensic lens" used in other criminal cases.

He worries that the Rainbow Concrete case is an example of a Crown attorney finding it "easier" to reach a deal rather than carry through with a prosecution. 

"Employers see this kind of plea bargain and see all you have to do is plead guilty and just write a cheque," Neumann says.

No one from the Ministry of the Attorney General was made available for comment. 

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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