When you’re starting to drown between employee concerns, payroll duties and helping your CEO -- HR Insider is there to help get the logistical work out of the way.
Need a policy because of a recent regulatory change? We’ve got it for you. Need some quick training on a specific HR topic? We’ve got it for you. HR Insider provides the resources you need to craft, implement and monitor policies with confidence. Our team of experts (which includes lawyers, analysts and HR professionals) keep track of complex legislation, pending changes, new interpretations and evolving case law to provide you with the policies and procedures to keep you ahead of problems. FIND OUT MORE...
Is a Contractor Liable for a Subcontractor’s Environmental Violation?

A contractor may be fined more than the subcontractor for allowing the violation to happen.

Environmental violations often occur at sites where work is performed by contractors and the subcontractors they hire. The question then arises as to whether and to what extent the contractor should be liable for the violations their subcontractors commit. The following scenario, which is based on an actual case, illustrates the principles that apply in determining liability for such offences.


A large corporate real estate developer hires an experienced subcontractor to clear land for a new shopping center. A creek flows through the land. Environmental consultants report that the creek has little potential as a fish habitat but warn of the potential for erosion. The contract requires the subcontractor to minimize silt deposits and erosion. It also makes the subcontractor responsible for doing the job in compliance with environmental laws. The contract doesn’t appoint an environmental monitor to oversee the work.

Instead of clearing the property in phases as required by environmental guidelines, the subcontractor strips everything at once, leaving the land vulnerable to erosion. Moreover, the subcontractor does the work when rains and snowmelt are at their heaviest, the time of year when erosion risk is at its highest. As a result, a large amount of silt is deposited into the creek and eventually into a major river. There’s no evidence of serious injury to water or fish. But the subcontractor is charged and pleads guilty to a Fisheries Act violation and is fined $15,000. The Crown wants to fine the developer $100,000 for the same offence.

You Make the Call

Should the contractor also be fined for the subcontractor’s violation and, if so, how much’ (What fine, if any, do you think the court imposed’)

  1. Less than $15,000; since the subcontractor actually caused the discharge, it deserved a higher fine than the developer.
  2. None’there was no violation because the siltation didn’t do significant harm to water or fish.
  3. More than $15,000 because the developer tried to pass off the risk to the subcontractor rather than take steps to control it.
  4. None because the contract made the subcontractor responsible for compliance with the environmental laws.


  1. The BC court found the developer liable for a Fisheries Act violation and fined it more than $15,000.


The BC developer in this case pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Fisheries Act but claimed it should be fined no more than the subcontractor, that is $15,000. The Crown asked for a $100,000 fine. The BC provincial court settled on $40,000. The developer, who was obviously aware of the environmental risks, could have but didn’t use its economic leverage to insist on having an environmental monitor oversee the work, the court reasoned. It generally takes a bigger fine to deter a large corporation from violating environmental laws. Still, the court felt that $100,000 was too much, given the developer’s immediate response, expression of remorse and the fact that this was its first violation [R. v. First Prince George Developments Ltd., [2006] B.C.P.C. 231 (CanLII)].

Why Wrong Answers Are Wrong

A is wrong because even though (Section 718.2(b) of) the Canadian Criminal Code says that a sentence should be ‘similar to sentences imposed on similar offenders for similar offences committed in similar circumstances,’ the word ‘similar’ doesn’t mean exactly the same. Courts have ‘flexibility’ to assess the circumstances of each offender and impose different sentences, if warranted, according to the BC court.

B is wrong because a person who makes an illegal deposit can be guilty of a Fisheries Act violation even if there’s no proof that the deposit actually harmed water or fish. At most, the degree of harm is a factor to be considered in determining the size of the penalty for an illegal deposit.

D is wrong because the Fisheries Act makes it illegal to commit or ‘permit’ a discharge. In failing to use its considerable economic leverage to monitor the subcontractor’s work and ensure that it minimized erosion and siltation, the developer had ‘permitted’ the violation to occur.

Show Your Lawyer