Supervisors Beware: A Possible Shift in the Legal Landscape

Certain cases come along that can turn your head and make you say “this is going to be interesting”. This is one of those cases.  

On April 3, 2012, an excavation company owned by Sylvain Fournier was tasked with replacing a sewer and water main line on a construction project. The trench was not shored or sloped adequately, and Fournier’s worker, Gilles Lévesque, was in the trench when it collapsed. The slopes were improperly shored, and excavation deposits from the trench were left on top of the banks causing it to collapse, engulfing and killing Mr. Lévesque.

As a result of the incident, Mr. Fournier was charged with criminal negligence causing death, and manslaughter.

Mr. Fournier accepted the first charge, but challenged the charge of manslaughter at the preliminary inquiry. The charge of manslaughter is based on section 222(5)(a) of the Criminal Code of Canada which outlines that a person commits culpable homicide when he causes the death of a human being by an “unlawful act”. A Criminal Code violation such as manslaughter requires mens rea, meaning that “the act is not culpable unless the mind is guilty” or simply put, there is criminal intent.

The argument was made that failure to adequately shore the slopes was a contravention of section 3.15.3 of the safety code for the construction industry in Quebec, which is a strict liability offence not a Criminal Code contravention. Therefore, the defendant argued that a strict liability offence did not fit the definition of an “unlawful act” under the Criminal Code.

This is where things get interesting. The Crown argued that the “unlawful act” did not have to be criminal in nature. The Crown stated that Fournier’s failure to adequately shore the slopes, and permitting Mr. Lévesque to work in the trench was a highly dangerous activity, and a reasonable person would be able to foresee the potential harm if such a worker were permitted to work in the inadequately shored trench. This scenario fits many of the cases that we can find today on the Ministry of Labour website!

The judge at the preliminary inquiry agreed with the Crown, that Mr. Fournier’s failure to protect the worker could meet the definition of an “unlawful act” under the Criminal Code. Mr. Fournier challenged the decision via judicial review, however, the Superior Court upheld the decision. This decision has now established that when it comes to safety, a strict liability offence can constitute an “unlawful act” under section 222(5)(a) of the Criminal Code of Canada.

In order for an individual or organization to be charged and convicted for manslaughter, the burden of proof rests with the Crown and they must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the following:

  • The accused committed a strict liability offence and the offence was objectively dangerous
  • The conduct of the accused party constituted a marked departure from the standard of a reasonable person in similar circumstances
  • Taking into consideration, all of the circumstances of the case, a reasonable person would have foreseen the risk of bodily harm

If we apply these factors to the Fournier case, we can see how the decision was made. The Safety Code was contravened by not shoring the slopes, the contravention was objectively dangerous, and the contravention or breech of safety duty in this case is a marked departure from a standard of care of a reasonable person who would have foreseen the high level of risk posed by the inadequately shored trench.

If the conviction is upheld, this could effectively change the legal landscape in Canada. Those that direct others to perform a task that do not take the necessary precautions to mitigate the risk can find themselves facing some much stiffer penalties than before. This is going to be interesting!

Written by Jeff Thorne | Manager of Training and Consulting


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