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The death of an employee due to the collapse of trench walls: Superior Court confirms the employer’s committal for trial for manslaughter

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In the recent decision Fournier c R.[1], the Superior Court of Quebec confirmed that an employer’s violations of health and safety legislation can be the underlying unlawful act on which is based a criminal charge of manslaughter.

On April 3, 2012, Mr. Fournier, who is the owner of an excavation firm, was replacing a sewer line with one of his employees when the trench walls collapsed, killing the employee. As a result, Mr. Fournier was personally charged with criminal negligence causing death[2] and with manslaughter. For both offences, the maximum punishment is imprisonment for life.

Following the preliminary inquiry, the accused was committed to trial on both charges. While he did not contest the part of the decision relating to the offence of criminal negligence causing death, he challenged his committal to trial for the charge of manslaughter.

In this case, the charge of manslaughter is based on section 222(5)a) of the Criminal Code which provides that a person commits culpable homicide when he causes the death of a human being by means of an unlawful act. At the preliminary inquiry hearing, the prosecution led evidence to show that while he was in charge of the work to replace the sewer line, Mr. Fournier did not solidly shore the banks of the trench with quality material in accordance with the plans and specifications of an engineer as required by section 3.15.3 of the Safety Code for the construction industry (the “Safety Code”). According to section 236 of An Act respecting occupational health and safety (the “Act”), the failure to fulfill this obligation is a strict liability offence. The judge presiding at the preliminary inquiry accepted the Crown’s argument that this failure could constitute the underlying “unlawful act” referred to in section 222(5)a) of the Criminal Code.

Mr. Fournier challenged this decision by way of judicial review, arguing that a strict liability offence cannot constitute an “unlawful act” as per section 222(5)a) of the Criminal Code.

The Superior Court refused Mr. Fournier’s argument and rather concluded, following a thorough review of the relevant case law and doctrine, that the underlying unlawful act in a charge of manslaughter can be a strict liability offence, including one related to occupational health and safety.

It clarified, however, that in such circumstances, and unlike a typical prosecution under occupational health and safety legislation, it is not the accused who bears the burden to prove that he has taken all the reasonable steps in the circumstances to avoid or prevent the occurrence of the prohibited act. Rather, it is for the Crown to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the conduct of the accused constitutes a marked departure from that of a reasonable person. More specifically, to satisfy its burden of proof, the prosecution must establish all of the following elements:

  1. The accused committed a strict liability offence which was objectively dangerous;
  2. The conduct of the accused constituted a marked departure from the standard of a reasonable person in the same circumstances; and
  3. Taking in consideration all the circumstances of the case, a reasonable person would have foreseen the risk of bodily harm.

In application of the above-mentioned principles, the Superior Court found that there was sufficient evidence in this case to confirm the committal to trial. According to the judgment, the Crown offered prima facie evidence for each of the three criteria: 1) the failure to solidly shore the banks of a trench is a strict liability offence according to the Act and the Safety Code and is also objectively dangerous conduct; 2) the breach of this obligation is a marked departure from the standard of a reasonable person in the same circumstances; and 3) a reasonable person would have foreseen the risk of not solidly shoring the banks of the trench.

In conclusion, this decision should bring to the employers’ minds the very serious consequences that failure to comply with occupational health and safety obligations can have on their employees, but also on their own life. From now on, employers must be aware that if an employee dies in such context, not only can they be charged with criminal negligence, but also with manslaughter.

[1] 2016 QCCS 5456

[2] The charge of criminal negligence causing death is based on section 219 of the Criminal Code on the alleged failure of Mr. Fournier to respect the obligation set out in article 217.1 of the Criminal Code, which provides that “everyone who undertakes, or has the authority, to direct how another person does work or performs a task is under a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to that person, or any other person, arising from that work or task.” This provision of the Criminal Code has been in force since 2004, but has not been invoked in many prosecutions so far.