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Employer ordered to pay fine of $100,000 following a fatal workplace incident at a road building construction site after court accepts joint submission

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The Territorial Court of the Northwest Territories considered and accepted a joint submission from the Crown and defence, sentencing the employer to a $100,000 fine. The matter arose following a workplace incident in June 2016 where a young worker was killed. The worker had been operating a vibrating roller packer used to compact a new access road in the Northwest Territories. The packer had rolled off the road and the worker either fell or attempted to jump out of the packer as it was rolling over. The packer rolled over on top of him, killing him.

The employer faced a number of charges and had pled guilty to a charge of failing to ensure that the worker was properly supervised. The court considered the significance of a joint submission, noting that it was normally the result of a negotiation process between lawyers. This process was important to the administration of justice and thus, the court must normally defer to the joint submission within the bounds established by the Supreme Court of Canada in an earlier case. The Supreme Court of Canada has stated that when considering a joint submission on sentence, the trial judge should accept it unless doing so would bring the administration of justice into disrepute or would otherwise be contrary to the public interest. This would occur where the joint submission is such that it would be “markedly out of line with the expectations of reasonable persons aware of the circumstances of the case that they would view it as a breakdown in the proper functioning of the criminal justice system” and that trial judges should “avoid rendering a decision that causes an informed and reasonable public to lose confidence in the institution of the courts.”

In order to apply this test, the court in this case reviewed established sentencing principles, noting that the ultimate goal of imposing a significant fine was behaviour modification, both specific deterrence (deterring this employer from similar offences in the future) and general deterrence (deterring other employers from committing similar offences). However, the sentence must be proportional to the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender. The court applied the following factors and considerations when assessing the amount of the $100,000 fine proposed by the joint submission:

  • Nature of the offence – there was a recognized danger that the packer could roll over. It was equipped with a rollover protection structure and had several warning labels stating that seat belts must be worn. The evidence was clear that the worker had not been wearing a seat belt at the time of the incident. There was no evidence that anyone had ever told the worker that he should wear his seatbelt. The court found that the worker should have been instructed to wear a seatbelt and that his supervisor should have ensured he was wearing a seatbelt and not operating the packer on or near an inclined surface. The failure to do so was a serious omission.
  • Nature of the offender – the employer was a relatively small, privately-held corporation with revenue in 2017 slightly over $1,000,000.
  • Degree of blameworthiness – the court recognized this was not a situation where the employer was taking chances to make money. However, a young worker with no formal training had been put in charge of a piece of heavy equipment without proper instruction or supervision. Instruction and supervision with respect to the safe operation of the packer should have been integral to the company’s operations.
  • Capacity to pay a fine – given the employer’s revenue in past years, the court was satisfied that $100,000 was a significant amount and has a substantial deterrent effect.
  • Maximum fine under the legislation and range of fines – the maximum fine under the Northwest Territories Safety Act was $500,000. On a review of cases involving similar circumstances, the court was satisfied that $100,000 was within the range of fines normally imposed for this type of offence.
  • Previous convictions – the employer had no history of safety or other regulatory infractions.
  • Harm and potential harm – the worker died as a result of being crushed by the packer. Had he been wearing his seatbelt, he likely would have been held within the protective structure and protected.
  • Contributory negligence – the worker should have been wearing his seatbelt and the court assumed he would have seen the prominent warning labels. He chose not to wear his seatbelt. However, he was a young man and would have relied on those who supervised him and may have believed there was no real possibility of a rollover. While there were levels of THC found in his blood indicating that he had consumed hashish or marijuana in the hours before the accident, the evidence was not properly before the court and it did not establish that cannabis consumption had anything to do with his death. The court recognized however that this may have been one of the matters that was part of the negotiations for the joint submission.
  • Post offence conduct – the employer had spent over $37,000 to fly the worker’s family to the Northwest Territories on more than one occasion and had created a memorial to the worker. The employer had cooperated with the investigation. The guilty plea was a mitigating factor on sentence. The presence of one of the owners at the sentencing hearing was also significant.
  • Balancing of factors – the court noted that none of these factors can be considered in isolation, nor would one override the others.

The court considered all of these factors and accepted the joint submission, ordering the employer to pay a fine of $100,000. The court waived the 15% victim crime surcharge because it was satisfied that it would result in undue hardship to the employer.

R. v. Allen Services & Contracting Ltd., 2018 NWTTC 03 (CanLII)