By Julie-Anne Cardinal
A BC naval officer, convicted last month of two charges of criminal negligence causing death in relation to the sinking of a passenger ferry off the British Columbia coast seven years ago, was sentenced to four years in prison and banned from operating vessels for 10 years. The officer is appealing his conviction and sentence.
In the early morning hours of March 22, 2006, the Queen of the North was sailing through British Columbia’s inside passage when it struck an island at full speed and sank with over 100 passengers on board. Two were never found. They were presumed drowned and declared dead. The Transportation Safety Board concluded that the cause of the incident was human error, and in 2010, the officer piloting the ship was formally charged with two counts of criminal negligence causing death.
At trial, the Crown alleged the officer, Karl Lilgert, was distracted on the bridge by the presence of a second officer with whom he had once carried on an affair. The Crown’s theory of the case was that the two were engaged in some sort of personal interaction at the time of the incident, either arguing or having sex on the bridge. The ship missed a scheduled turn and according to its electronic chart system, described as similar to a “black box,” failed to slow down or take any positive steps to avoid the island.
On May 13, 2013, a jury convicted the officer, rejecting defence assertions that the officer did not act with wanton and reckless disregard for the lives or safety of others because he was engaged in the normal activities of operating the vessel. The defence also argued that BC Ferries should be blamed for inadequate training, unreliable equipment and staffing deficiencies. As juries do not provide reasons for their decisions, why these defences were rejected is unknown. However, the court told the jury that in order to convict the officer, jurors did not need to believe that the officer intended to cause the deaths or knew that they would happen. Rather, the officer could be found guilty if he had “objective foresight” and should have known that his conduct could cause bodily harm.
This is the most severe sentence imposed to date against an individual charged criminally in Canada in relation to a workplace incident. Other prior criminal prosecutions of individuals have included:
In 2010, a landscape contractor was given a conditional sentence of imprisonment of two years less a day after being convicted of criminal negligence causing death. The accused was operating a backhoe when the vehicle’s brakes failed. A worker was crushed and killed. Experts confirmed the vehicle was old and had been very poorly maintained, with brakes that were inoperative. (R. c. Scrocca, 2010 QCCQ 8218).
In 2012, a supervisor of a construction project was granted an absolute discharge after pleading guilty to criminal negligence causing bodily harm. An elderly man was severely injured in a gas explosion sparked by the unsafe transfer of gasoline that had been permitted by the supervisor. The court found that as the supervisor was 54 years old, of good character, and did not have a criminal record, it was not necessary to enter a conviction to deter him from committing future offences. (R. c. Hritchuk, 2012 QCCS 4525).
Julie-Anne Cardinal is a member of Heenan Blaikie's Labour and Employment Law Group; 416-643-6939, firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Criminal Code prosecutions arising in the context of the workplace, please contact Cheryl Edwards email@example.com, Jeremy Warning firstname.lastname@example.org, Shane Todd email@example.com or Julie-Anne Cardinal firstname.lastname@example.org from Heenan Blaikie’s national OHS group.