MONTREAL — After a runaway freight train hauling crude oil derailed in Lac Mégantic, Que. in 2013, triggering explosions and fire that killed 47 people and destroyed the downtown, shock soon gave way to anger.
How could the disaster have been allowed to happen? Who was going to be held accountable?
Ten months later, police appeared to provide part of the answer as they led three handcuffed employees of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway past a gauntlet of townspeople into a courtroom. Train engineer Thomas Harding, railway traffic controller Richard Labrie and manager of train operations Jean Demaître faced 47 charges each of criminal negligence causing death — one for every victim.
But, on Friday, a jury in Sherbrooke, Que. acquitted the three men of all charges. After a three-month trial and nine days of deliberations, the eight men and four women of the jury decided the defendants could not be made scapegoats for what defence lawyers always maintained was a much larger failing.
When they began their deliberations last week, Superior Court Justice Gaétan Dumas cautioned the jurors not to be influenced by the emotions surrounding the disaster. “You must consider the evidence and make your decision without sympathy, prejudice or fear,” he instructed jurors before they began deliberating. “You must not be influenced by public opinion.”
Jury deliberations are secret, but it was clear jurors were struggling with the notion that the three employees bore criminal responsibility for the disaster. On Monday, they asked for clarification about the legal concept that criminal negligence involves a marked and substantial departure from what a “reasonable” person would do. On Tuesday they told Dumas they were at an impasse, but he urged them to keep trying. On Friday morning, they again asked for guidance on the nature of criminal negligence.
The Crown had argued that the three men, through their actions and their inactions, were responsible for the derailment and the massive loss of life. (At the trial’s outset, the charges had been condensed for each defendant to a single charge of criminal negligence causing 47 deaths.)
“Of course there will always be room to improve rail safety,” prosecutor Sacha Blais told the jury, “but the hard truth of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy is that a simple test or a simple question could have prevented it.”
What one defence lawyer described to the jury as a “perfect storm” of mishaps began with puffs of black smoke as the locomotive, with Harding at the controls, laboured to make it the roughly 190 kilometres from Farnham to Nantes, outside Lac-Mégantic on July 5, 2013.
After arriving in Nantes, where MMA parked trains overnight before an American engineer took over for the route through Maine, Harding advised an American rail traffic controller of the mechanical problems. The two men agreed the locomotive would be checked out in the morning, and Harding left for his Lac-Mégantic hotel.
Soon afterward, a fire broke out in the locomotive smokestack and firefighters were called to put it out. To prevent another flare-up, the firefighters shut down the locomotive, which Harding had left running.
The trial heard a recording of a conversation as Labrie called Harding at his hotel to inform him of the locomotive fire. “Do I need to go up there?” Harding asked. Labrie assured him another railway employee was on the scene and everything was under control. “Go to bed,” he said.
By shutting down the locomotive, the firefighters had unwittingly crippled its braking power as pressure seeped out of the air brakes. Before leaving for his hotel, Harding had manually applied handbrakes on seven cars, but the trial heard that was not nearly enough to secure a train of that size.
At about 1 a.m. on July 6, the train with 72 tank cars holding 7.7-million litres of volatile oil began rolling downhill from Nantes. Fifteen minutes later, it thundered into Lac-Mégantic at a speed of 105 km/h and jumped the tracks.
The next recording the jury heard of Harding, he had called Labrie to tell him “the town of Mégantic is on fire.” He had not yet realized it was his train that had sparked the inferno, but the confirmation would come in a second call with Labrie.
“It’s your train that rolled down,” Labrie said. Harding reacted with disbelief. “Tabarnak de tabarnak,” he swore in French. “It was secure when I left . . . . How the f— did that f—ing thing roll down?” Labrie responded by asking how many hand brakes he applied, and Harding told him seven.
The Crown case hinged on the hand brakes. An expert testified that to hold a train that size, there should have been twice as many brakes applied. MMA rules called for at least nine hand brakes.
We can’t hold people criminally responsible for not being perfect
By applying just seven, Harding showed the “reckless disregard” for the lives of others that makes a negligent act criminal, Blais told the jury. He said Labrie’s negligence stemmed from his failure to verify that Harding had applied enough hand brakes when they were discussing the locomotive fire. He said Demaître, as operations manager, had the authority to ensure the train was properly secured, but he did not.
Defence lawyers argued that all three defendants were conscientious workers. The jury heard that as Lac-Mégantic burned, Harding risked his life to help uncouple tank cars that had not derailed and move them to safety before they exploded. The defendants may have made mistakes, the defence said, but they were working for a railway with a history of not enforcing safety measures.
“We can’t hold people criminally responsible for not being perfect,” Charles Shearson, one of Harding’s lawyers, told the jury.
While it was not entered into evidence, the Transportation Safety Board report into the derailment criticized MMA for a “weak safety culture,” including lax oversight of how trains were secured at Nantes.
“If instructions or rules are disregarded, and unsafe conditions and practices are allowed to persist, this leads to an increased acceptance of such situations,” the 2014 report said.
Jennifer Quaid, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said the charge of criminal negligence causing death requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused’s actions were a “marked and substantial departure from what a reasonable person would have done in the same circumstances.”
In the Lac-Mégantic case, the evidence showed that the problems at MMA went well beyond three relatively low-level employees.
“That is what the Transportation Safety Board also concluded, that this is a complex event brought about by a constellation of factors. . . . It seems almost artificial to start pointing the finger, particularly at people at the bottom of the food chain,” Quaid said.
None of the accused testified during the trial, and Harding left the Sherbrooke courthouse without speaking to reporters. But one of his lawyers, Thomas Walsh, said that like it or not, the engineer will remain the “poster boy” for the Lac-Mégantic disaster. “He has always accepted his responsibility,” Walsh said. “Our only claim was that this responsibility did not equal criminal negligence.”
An emotional Labrie read a statement. “To the 47 victims and all the people of Mégantic, I hope you got the answers you were looking for with this trial. Although I never spoke, I was always thinking of you,” he said.
Back when the three men were charged, Lac-Mégantic residents said it was the railway’s chairman, Ed Burkhardt, they wanted to see in handcuffs. He was never charged, but the railway faces similar criminal negligence charges. A trial date has not been set, but even if convicted, the only penalty for a company is a fine — one that would likely never be paid because MMA went bankrupt.
with files from Postmedia and The Canadian Press