BC Court: Union’s Private Criminal Negligence Prosecution Can Go Forward

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On March 25, 2010, the United Steelworkers union launched a private criminal negligence (aka C-45) prosecution against Weyerhaeuser for a worker’s death in 2004. How could it do that? Section 504 of the Criminal Code says that anyone who has reasonable grounds to believe that someone has committed an indictable offence may lay an information before a justice.

Almost a year later, a BC court just ruled that the union had presented enough information supporting this claim for the case to go forward.

What Happened

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 Investigation

The union claims that unclogging the machine from underneath was known to be dangerous—another worker had already been injured doing so. It was also a violation of safety regulations. In fact, despite the hazards the hog posed, a WorkSafeBC investigation noted that no one in management did anything to address the hazard until after Hewer’s death. (After the report was released, a spokeswoman for Weyerhauser said the company had taken steps at all its plants to ensure similar accidents didn’t happen again.)

WorkSafeBC’s report concluded that even though the machine was known to be dangerous, senior management did nothing about it because of cost concerns. “While some mill supervisors recognized the danger of being struck by overhead materials while unplugging the hog, no level of mill management took the initiative the eliminate the hazard,” the report stated.

In March 2007, WorkSafeBC fined Weyerhaeuser $297,000 for this incident—the highest fine it had ever imposed against an employer at the time.

But despite the recommendation of the 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.

Court Ruling

The Vancouver Sun reported that Provincial Court Judge Terese Alexander ruled on March 2 that the union had presented enough evidence for the process to move forward, which means Weyerhaeuser will be issued a summons to appear in court and the Crown will have to decide whether to proceed with the charge or have the case dropped.

“The wheels of justice have ground slowly since Lyle Hewer died a horrific death at Weyerhaeuser six years ago,”’ said union official Stephen Hunt. “The judge’s decision could lead to a full-on prosecution of Weyerhaeuser and set an important legal precedent related to justice for preventable workplace deaths throughout Canada.”

The Implications

It seems to be the pattern that criminal negligence (or so-called C-45) charges are only brought in “high-profile” cases when the public and labour unions generate sufficient pressure on prosecutors. The United Steelworkers Union took things a step further by initiating its own private criminal negligence prosecution.

Should we expect a rush of private criminal negligence cases? Probably not. But given the recent court decision to let the United Steel case proceed, the Crown may be less likely to ignore the recommendations of the police and regulators for criminal negligence charges.