This past Monday, after nearly three weeks of jury selection, the trial for Lac Mégantic began in Sherbrooke. Train engineer Thomas Harding, 56, railway traffic controller Richard Labrie, 59, and manager of train operations Jean Demaître, 53, all face forty seven counts of criminal negligence causing death. If found guilty, they will each face life in prison.

For those of you who don’t remember, here’s a recap of what happened on that fateful day in 2013.

On July 5, 2013 a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train carrying 7.7 million liters of petroleum crude oil arrived at Nantes, Quebec bound for Saint John, New Brunswick and the locomotive engineer parked the train. Another engineer was scheduled to take his place the next day.

The engineer contacted the rail traffic controller in Farnham, Quebec, and then the rail traffic controller in Bangor, Maine. To the latter, the engineer said the locomotive had been having mechanical difficulties throughout the trip, causing excessive amounts of black and white smoke. As they both believed the smoke would settle, they agreed to leave the train as is until the next morning.

Some time after the first engineer left, firefighters were called in to deal with a fire on the train. They shut off the locomotive’s fuel supply and the electrical breakers inside, as per railway instructions. Firefighters also met with a railway employee and track foreman who’d been sent to the scene, but neither had locomotive knowledge. They contacted the rail traffic controller in Farnham, and the train departed shortly afterward.

What happened next is rather technical unless you’re a mechanical engineer, so I’ll try to simplify it as much as possible.

Mechanical difficulties on the train got worse, affecting the brakes of the locomotive which are used to help regulate speed. At 1 am on July 6, 2013, the train headed downhill towards the town of Lac Mégantic. Without the locomotive effectively controlling its velocity, the train picked up speed. At 1:15 am the train derailed, spilling 6 million liters of crude oil and causing a large fire and multiple explosions.

Forty seven people died that night. Most were confirmed dead by the local coroner but some have not been found but are presumed dead, incinerated by the blasts. Two thousand people were evacuated from the site, forty buildings and fifty three vehicles were destroyed.

Aerial photographs of the site show over six blocks of scorched ground. The spill contaminated thirty-one hectares of land, and a hundred thousand litres of crude oil ended up in Mégantic lake and the Chaudière river via the town’s sewer systems, surface flow, and underground infiltration.

As with any disaster of this magnitude, heads must roll for it, figuratively, not literally. In this case, it is three former Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway employees who are on the chopping block, though not everyone agrees they are the ones who should be.

Some Lac Mégantic residents like Jean Paradis resent that the executives of the now bankrupt Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway are safely in the United States instead of answering to survivors in Quebec. Paradis was inside a bar when it happened and watched his friends die in the fire. He told Global News the rail company put making money above safety measures.

A train belonging to the now bankrupt Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway

“Security should be first, not third,” he said.

The Transportation and Safety Board of Canada (TSBC) seems to confirm the notion that the management of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway are somewhat responsible for the disaster. Their report released in August 2014 following a lengthy investigation revealed many factors contributing to what happened which included:

  • Improper repairs
  • Mechanical issues i.e. things being bent out of shape, brakes not working, engine problems
  • “Weak safety structure”

Chemical engineer Jean-Paul Lacoursière of the University of Sherbrooke read the report and agrees that railway management should at the very least be called to testify at the trial. His impression is that the company did not make sure employees were properly trained, nor did they make sure they understood the training they received. He feels this lack of leadership, risk management, and ineffective training were all contributing factors to the disaster.

It is not the leadership of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway or even the company itself that’s on trial. Superior Court Justice Gaétan Dumas’ instructions to the jury included a reminder that the railway company is not on trial, and that they must treat the defendants as if they were facing three separate trials for forty seven counts of negligence causing death.

The prosecution, led by Crown Prosecutor Valerie Beauchamp, plans to present thirty six witnesses. The trial is expected to go on until just before Christmas. The residents of Lac Mégantic, for the most part, just want to move on from what happened, equating the trial of Harding, Demaitre, and Labrie to holding generals responsible for losing a war.

As the town recovers, we must not forget who we lost in the disaster. Instead of speculating on the outcome of the ongoing trial, I’m going to conclude with a list of the victims below.

Let’s not focus on how they died, but remember them for who they were and how they lived.

Andrée-Anne Sévigny – Age 26
David Martin – Age 36
Michel Junior Guertin – Age 33
Éliane Parenteau-Boulanger- Age 93
Élodie Turcotte – Age 18
Geneviève Breton – Age 28
Guy Bolduc – Age 43
Henriette Latulippe – Age 61
Talitha Coumi Bégnoche – Age 30
Bianka Begnoche – Age 9
Alyssa Begnoche – Age 4
Jean Pierre Roy – Age 56
Jimmy Sirois – Age 30
Marie-Semie Alliance – Age 22
Joanie Turmel – Age 29
Gaetan Lafontaine – Age 33
Kevin Roy – Age 29
Marianne Poulin – Age 23
Marie-France Boulet – Age 62
Richard Veilleux – Age 63
Martin Rodrigue – Age 48
Maxime Dubois – Age 27
Melissa Roy – Age 29
Natachat Gaudeau – Age 41
Réal Custeau – Age 57
Stephane Bolduc – Age 37
Karine Champagne – Age 36
Sylvie Charron – Age 50
Yves Boulet – Age 51
Marie Noelle Faucher – Age 36
Kathy Clusiault – Age 24
Karine Lafontaine – Age 35
Diane Bizier – Age 46
Éric Pépin Lajeunesse – Age 28
Fréderic Boutin – Age 19
Yannick Bouchard – Age 36
Stéphane Lapièrre – Age 45
Roger Paquet – Age 61
David Lacroix-Beaudoin – Age 27
Mathieu Pelletier – Age 29
Jean Guy Vielleux – Age 32
Jo Annie Lapointe – Age 20
Lucie Vadnais – Age 49
Jacques Giroux – Age 65
Louisette Poirier-Picard – Age 76
Denise Dubois – Age 57
Wilfrid Ratsch – Age 78

After a train exploded in 2013 in the small town of Lac Mégantic, killing 47, many of the mourning families turned to the American justice system in hopes of getting better compensation. Four years later, the three firms representing them have charged them around $40 million in total, despite doing virtually nothing, according to information gathered by Radio-Canada’s Enquête.

40 of the 47 families have contracts with the Garcia Law Group (GLG). According to Radio-Canada, they have paid them between 10 and 15 million so far, with nothing to show for it. The firm is based in Southern Texas and owned by Wilfrido Rogelio Garcia. It was first registered there only a month after the Lac Mégantic accident.

Despite what his clients believe, Garcia is not even a lawyer. In fact the only lawyer on the firm’s payroll seems to be his daughter, Maria Garcia. GLG’s modus operandi is to pressure grieving families to sign contracts, so they can resell their cases to lawyers.

“They said to me that with some plane crashes in Europe, [Garcia] or his people were there in less than 24 hours. They were proud of that,” said Michele Whitmore, who once worked on a contract with GLG, as quoted by Radio-Canada. Garcia found clients in the aftermath of at least four plane crashes, in Peru, Greece, Russia and Indonesia, where the number of casualties ranged from 48 to 129.

GLG was the first law firm to get to Lac Mégantic after the tragedy They approached the families of victims and invited them to meetings to convince them that GLG could seek justice for them through the American system.

Ginette Cameron, who lost her daughter Geneviève in the explosion, remembers Garcia asking her several times if she would like another mother to live through what she lived through. She and her husband signed the same day.

Experts agree that such behaviour is against every deontological code. According to Bill Edwards, a lawyer interviewed by Radio-Canada, it is plainly illegal. Reporters have been unable to speak to anyone from Garcia Law Group.

Enquête’s full report will air tonight at 9pm on Radio-Canada.

* Featured image: Google Street View of the address listed on the Garcia Law Firm PLLC website

Early Sunday morning, a train went off the tracks in St-Henri. Two locomotives and two wagons derailed near the intersection of St-Jacques and de Courcelle. Fortunately, they were only carrying grain and no one was hurt, though some diesel did spill. They were not carrying oil, but thinking about that prospect is more than a little unsettling for residents.

“It’s terrifying,” says Craig Sauvé, city councillor for St-Henri, Pointe St-Charles and Little Burgundy who also lives 500 meters from where the derailment happened, “one would hope that the CN would be a better corporate citizen in light of Lac Mégantic.”

So how do we ensure that something on the scale of Lac Mégantic doesn’t happen in such a densely populated area like Montreal, besides, of course, no-brainer though far-reaching solutions like not transporting so much oil? For starters, Sauvé suggests that residents put pressure on the federal government, which governs rail transport, to measure what’s being transported through our neighbourhoods.

He also pointed out that there is a more direct solution already at the disposal of the provincial government:

“For one thing,” he said, “the Gouvernment of Quebec can start applying article 8 of the Law concerning civil security.”

This law says, in a nutshell, that any person whose activities or property are generating major disaster risk is required to report this risk to the local municipality where the source of risk is. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a start and one that doesn’t require any additional regulation being passed.

“The Québec government,”  Sauvé commented, “can certainly do its part to ensure that its own proper laws are applied.”

With a train derailment so close to home for many of us and thoughts of Lac Mégantic still in our minds, it’s becoming clear that something needs to change before it’s too late, even if that something is incremental at best. To do nothing is to invite more of the same or much worse.

Yesterday in Quebec there was a protest. It wasn’t about some broad-reaching concept like the Charter, it was about something much more specific and basic: the ability to see family and friends.

Lac-Mégantic, a small town we all know suffered tragedy on a massive international headline-grabbing scale, is now a town divided, literally in half. The disaster zone where a train carrying oil exploded in the centre of town is still very much that.

Residents who want to visit people on the other side of town now face a 10 kilometer detour. The Marois government and even the Federal government have done nothing to fix the situation, so residents have taken matters into their own hands and hit the streets:

“The people of Lac-Mégantic are victims of our collective dependence on fossil fuels,” said Green Party leader Alex Tyrrell who attended the protest. “They deserve our full support, and the fact that they are taking to the streets in such large numbers clearly indicates that there is a problem.”

There is a nearby bridge, but even though it wasn’t damaged in the explosion, people don’t have access to it. Some residents have even speculated that it’s because the government is in the process of handing out lucrative construction contracts to build a new bridge despite none being needed.

lac megantic protest 2

“The provincial government needs to hold meaningful consultations with the citizens,” Tyrrell said, emphasizing that officials should pay attention to those “who feel that their opinions are not being considered in the reconstruction and decontamination process.”

At the very least, the public should realize that just because the disaster happened months ago, its effects are still being felt by those closest to it and this doesn’t have to be the case. If their fight now gets a fraction of the coverage the initial aftermath did, then the government may just do something about their situation.

* Photos and video by Alex Tyrrell

The tragedy of Lac Mégantic is now moving into its legal phase, as tragedies in our society invariably seem to do. The death toll stands at 50 people but more are expected as the search for the missing continues. One thing is certain though: the law suits are sure to fly thick and fast, and the potential targets run the gamut from the Feds, for their lack of oversight of the rail industry, to the now infamous rail company’s engineer responsible for setting the breaks that failed thus causing the disaster (unless you want to be more conspiratorial than me, and consider the possibility of foul play as a cause).

The civil law suits based on the liability of Rail World Inc. is now accepted by everyone including its grandfatherly CEO Ed Burkhart who said at a recent press conference from the town “We’re acknowledging liability. We’re not standing around saying we don’t have responsibility.” That means it’s no longer a question of whether monetary compensation will be paid to the victims of the train wreck, but how large a payout they can expect from the courts.

When the dust settles on this one I wouldn’t be surprised if we see damages similar to that which were paid by BP after the Deep Water Horizon. The oil company was forced to pay 42 billion in reparations including 4 billion in fines for various kinds of negligence, including criminal, which it committed.

BP had been found guilty of cutting costs at the expense of safety on its offshore oil rig, in much the same way that Rail World Inc is facing accusations today of neglecting safety in favour of greater profits in its oil shipping business. Another similarity with the Gulf catastrophe is the charges of criminal negligence against the companies involved. BP was actually found guilty not only of criminal stupidity under US law but also of involuntary homicide or manslaughter for the deaths of 11 roughnecks who were killed in the explosion.

But what about proving that the employees of the Rail World Inc., and by extension the corporation that hired them, were guilty of criminal behaviour?

Let’s begin with the definition of criminal negligence in Canada: “ Everyone is criminally negligent who in doing anything or omitting to do anything, that it is his (please note the sexist language) duty to do, shows wanton or reckless disregard for the lives of others.” It should be understood that this is quite unique, in that the law says an individual is still guilty of a crime even if they have done nothing and had the best intentions.

The precedents of Canadian law tell us a couple of key things about the criminal liability of corporations that are responsible, directly or indirectly, for death and destruction in cases like this one. First of all, the whole corporate structure (from secretaries to CEOs), not just individual employees, can be implicated in criminal negligence.

Secondly, no matter how much the company denies it, they are obligated to take all necessary measures required by law to ensure the safety of their employees and the general public. Any failure to do this could constitute criminal negligence.

The threshold that needs to be met for this “reckless disregard for the lives of others” to be established in court is tricky to do, to say the least. If past cases are any guide, the judge hearing this case will probably use the standard known as the “reasonable person” to decide the matter.

What does that mean in practice? In this instance, do the actions of engineer who set the breaks on the runaway train reflect what an average person would consider common sense? For that matter, did the company’s rules and practices on securing a train carrying explosive materials?

You see the problem. Unless the engineer was high on crack when he checked the train’s breaks or the company’s polices were written by a 10 year old, this is basically a subjective judgement that more often than not depends on a judge’s whims.