Union Launches Private Criminal Negligence Prosecution

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Since Bill C-45 took effect six years ago, there’s only been one conviction of a company for criminal negligence relating to a safety incident. Recently, BC and ON laid criminal negligence charges in two safety incidents. (Click here for more on those cases.) But the most intriguing recent criminal negligence case is one brought not by the government but by a labour union.

Worker Died in Sawmill Incident

According to the United Steelworkers Union, Lyle Hewer was trapped by debris in the hog (a machine that converts wood waste to chips) at Weyerhaeuser’s New West Division sawmill. He later died from his injuries. An autopsy determined that Hewer’s death was due to “combined smothering and compression asphyxia” after a prolonged burial under the hog fuel.

The union claims that Hewer died after following a supervisor’s request to work under conditions the employer knew were hazardous. In fact, despite the hazards the hog posed, a WorkSafeBC investigation noted that no level of mill management took the initiative to eliminate the hazard until after Hewer’s death. In March 2007, WorkSafeBC levied a $297,000 penalty against Weyerhaeuser for this incident—the highest fine it has ever imposed against an employer. It cited the high-risk nature of the company’s violations, which were committed wilfully or with reckless disregard.

Government Refuses to Pursue Criminal Negligence Charges

Despite the recommendation of the New Westminster Police that a charge of criminal negligence causing death be laid against Weyerhaeuser and WorkSafeBC’s findings from its investigation, Crown Counsel refused to pursue criminal charges against the company.

You’d think that would be the end of the story. But it’s actually where things get interesting. On March 25, 2010, the United Steelworkers launched a private criminal negligence prosecution. It alleges that Weyerhaeuser was criminally negligent in Hewer’s death by omitting to do anything that it was its duty to do and showing wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons.

How can a union launch a criminal prosecution? Under Section 504 of the Criminal Code, anyone who on reasonable grounds believes that someone has committed an indictable offence may lay an information before a justice. How often this provision get used is unclear but I suspect it’s rare.

Implications of Case

The United Steelworkers case is an unique twist in the post-C-45 world of criminal negligence prosecutions for safety incidents. It appeared that in the few cases brought, pressure from the public and unions played a role in the bringing of criminal negligence charges. The launching of a private criminal negligence prosecution may signal that unions (and maybe other interested parties) may no longer be willing to simply pressure prosecutors to lay such charges—they may now lay negligence charges themselves.

Do you think a labour union should be launching criminal cases against companies?