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02 October 2013
On September 4 2013 the Ontario Court of Appeal released its decision in the sentence appeal in R v Metron Construction Corporation.(1) Government prosecutors had appealed the C$200,000 ﬁne that Metron received on July 13 2012 after pleading guilty to a charge of criminal negligence causing death. The court resoundingly rejected the lower penalty as unﬁt and increased the ﬁne to C$750,000.(2) The decision should interest all Canadian employers because the appeal court not only nearly quadrupled the Criminal Code ﬁne, but also held that in appropriate cases, courts can essentially ﬁne a company into bankruptcy for a Criminal Code conviction.
In addition to that chilling prospect, the decision contains a host of other notable developments arising from the application of the criminal negligence and sentencing provisions of the Criminal Code that were amended by Bill C-45 in 2004. This latest decision continues to make Metron a remarkable workplace health and safety case because it:
This update discusses this latest decision and the potential implications for employers.
The facts giving rise to Metron are as widely known as they are tragic. In September 2009 Metron was contracted to restore concrete balconies on two high-rise buildings in Toronto. The work would be done from swing stages and Metron arranged for a number of swing stages for the project. Two of the swing stages had been secured from an Ottawa-based supplier. They were 40 feet long in total and consisted of four 10-foot long sections connected by plates and bolts. These swing stages had no markings, serial numbers, identiﬁers or labels describing maximum capacity, as required by law and industry practice.
They were also delivered without manuals, instructions or design drawings and, contrary to legal requirements, were not accompanied by a written report from a professional engineer stating that theu had been erected in accordance with design drawings.
There were two lifelines for the swing stage to which workers could connect their fall harness and the normal practice was that only two workers would be on the swing stage at any one time. However, on December 24 2009 six workers were on a swing stage at a height of approximately 13 storeys. The swing stage collapsed and ﬁve of the workers fell to the ground. Four of those who fell were killed and the fifth suﬀered serious injuries. The sixth worker, the only one connected to a fall arrest system, was not injured.
The Ministry of Labour and the police investigated the accident. The investigation determined that before the accident, three of the four deceased, including the site supervisor, had consumed marijuana. Toxicological analysis determined that the level of marijuana in their systems was consistent with recent consumption. An examination of the swing stage determined that a signiﬁcant cause of the collapse was its defective design and inability to withstand the combined weight of the six men and their equipment.
The Ministry of Labour laid a total of 61 charges against multiple parties under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act. After its own investigation, the Toronto Police Service also laid numerous criminal charges. Metron, its president, the project manager and another Metron oﬃcial were each charged with four counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm.
On June 15 2012 Metron pleaded guilty to a charge of criminal negligence causing death and its president pleaded guilty to four charges under the act. As part of the guilty plea, it was agreed that Metron's site supervisor had been criminally negligent in three ways:
The C$200,000 ﬁne imposed on July 13 2012 followed a sentencing hearing in which there were highly conﬂicting positions taken on an appropriate sentence under the Criminal Code. The crown sought a ﬁne of C$1 million. Metron argued that the appropriate penalty was a ﬁne of C$100,000.
On that same date, the sentencing court accepted a joint recommendation from the Ontario Ministry of Labour crown and Metron's president and imposed a C$90,000 ﬁne on the company president for the four act oﬀences. The Criminal Code charges against Metron's president and the other company oﬃcial were withdrawn, as were all act oﬀences against Metron and the other company oﬃcial.(3)
As part of the sentencing proceedings, it was agreed that Metron had taken a number of positive steps to further health and safety on the project. Those steps were numerous. They included:
The level of ﬁne imposed by the original sentencing court was widely questioned by commentators. The crown appealed.
The crown appealed the C$200,000 fine imposed by the sentencing court on three grounds:
The court granted each ground of appeal.
The decision provides some helpful commentary on the law relating to corporate criminal liability in Canada. There is relatively little case law in this area, as compared to health and safety regulatory case law. Consequently, a number of important aspects to the decision are relevant to employers.
Criminal offences to be treated differently from health and safety offences
The court distinguished between regulatory health and safety violations and criminal negligence causing death. It held that health and safety legislation, such as the Occupational Health and Safety Act, is "designed to establish and enforce standards of health and safety in the workplace", whereas corporate criminal liability for criminal negligence "is intended to provide additional deterrence for morally blameworthy conduct that amounts to a wanton and reckless disregard for the lives and safety of others". The court also noted that the oﬀence of criminal negligence causing death is "one of the most serious oﬀences in the Criminal Code" and is "at the high end of moral blameworthiness".
For the court, the distinction between regulatory health and safety violations and criminal negligence causing death was underscored by the available penalties. The court compared the sentencing provisions available under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Criminal Code. It noted that under the act, a corporation is subject to a maximum ﬁne of C$500,000 per oﬀence, which "contrasts signiﬁcantly" with the availability of an unlimited ﬁne for a corporation convicted of criminal negligence causing death. Through this analysis, the court determined that the C$200,000 sentence imposed by the sentencing court was the result of an error because it did not reﬂect "the higher degree of moral blameworthiness and gravity associated with [Metron's] criminal conviction... and the principle of proportionality". This ﬁnding likely means that where circumstances are similar, employers can expect higher penalties to be imposed for criminal negligence oﬀences than would be imposed for health and safety oﬀences.
Corporation bound by conduct of supervisor
The decision also conﬁrms the expanded scope of corporate liability under the Bill C-45 amendments. The Ontario Court of Appeal conﬁrmed that Metron's site supervisor fell within the deﬁnitions of a 'representative'(4) and 'senior oﬃcer'(5) in the Criminal Code, meaning that his behaviour could attract corporate liability for criminal negligence. The site supervisor was not highly placed within Metron's corporate hierarchy. In fact, he did not work directly for Metron. He had his own construction company and had been hired by Metron's project manager. However, the appeal court commented that the "intent of Bill C-45 is to trigger responsibility by the corporation for the conduct and supervision of its representative". Therefore, the decision reaﬃrms that the behaviour of a person with a high degree of localised responsibility can attract criminal liability for an entire organisation. Employers should be aware of how criminal liability was established against Metron, because such localised responsibility is not unique to construction. It seems that the conduct of virtually any branch, store, area or plant manager, or others in similar positions, would attract the same risks of corporate liability.
As it relates to sentencing, the court held that the criminal negligence of the site supervisor was extreme: three times as many workers were on the swing stage when it collapsed than was usual practice, and there were three times more workers than available lifelines, only one of which was engaged. The court held that Metron could not distance itself from the site supervisor's actions, as his role within the company could not serve to diminish the gravity of the oﬀence. It appears that this latter ﬁnding may have been to address Metron's submission that the accident was not the product of a systemic course of conduct. The import of this particular ﬁnding is that for the purposes of sentencing, the level of organisational responsibility held by the person(s) whose actions constitute the corporate criminal negligence is irrelevant. This should be seen as troubling, as sentences imposed on corporations for criminal negligence will not distinguish between the conduct of a relatively low-level representative and one in the upper echelons of the management structure. The degree of responsibility will be the same notwithstanding that criminally negligent conduct by someone at a lower level is less likely to represent systemic or organisational behaviour.
Employers can be bankrupted by criminal penalties
The decision also provides guidance on how the economic circumstances of a corporate defendant will be treated at sentencing for a criminal conviction. The appeal court clariﬁed that ability to pay is a relevant sentencing consideration only when imposing a ﬁne on an individual. It is not a proper consideration when sentencing an organisation. However, when sentencing an organisation, the Criminal Code requires the courts to consider "the impact that the sentence would have on the economic viability of the organization and the continued employment of its employees".(6) Noting that the original sentencing court thought it was precluded from imposing a sentence that might result in Metron's bankruptcy, the appeal court found that the sentencing court placed too much emphasis on Metron's ability to pay.
The court considered a UK guideline(7) designed to guide courts imposing sentences on organisations under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act.(8) The court looked to the decision in R v Cotswold Geotechnical (Holdings) Ltd,(9) in which that company was sentenced to a ﬁne of £385,000 following its conviction for the workplace death of a young engineering student under the act. The UK guideline indicates that in some cases, it may be an acceptable consequence for a corporate ﬁne for a workplace accident to put a company out of business, and the sentence imposed in Cotswold was held to be appropriate notwithstanding that it would force the company into liquidation. Although neither the UK guideline nor the decision was binding on it, the court determined that they demonstrated a comparable approach to a similar oﬀence.
Ultimately, the Ontario Court of Appeal adopted a similar approach to the impact of the corporation's economic circumstances on sentencing. It held that a corporation's ﬁnancial viability is a factor to consider, but is in no way determinative. The court suggested the factors that may be considered when weighing the impact of a ﬁne on a corporation's economic viability could include "such matters as the importance of a corporation to a community or its value as a source of supply or as an industry participant".
However, where the court's decision most closely aligns with the UK approach is in the indication that, in appropriate circumstances, ﬁning a company into bankruptcy may be appropriate. To that end, the court wrote:
"In the case of a corporation that is a signiﬁcant employer, and whose viability is seriously threatened by the imposition of a ﬁne, the quantum of the ﬁne may be reasonably aﬀected. In contrast, in the case of a corporation that carries on no or limited business and has no or few employees, the impact of a ﬁ ne on the corporation's economic viability may be of little consequence."
If appropriate, the prospect of bankruptcy should not be precluded.
The appeal court found that the public interest in the continued viability of Metron was not manifest. This is a chilling development. Though serious oﬀences require the imposition of serious penalties, it must be remembered that Metron's criminal liability was based solely on the actions of the site supervisor – actions that displaced a fairly signiﬁcant number of positive steps taken by Metron that were inconsistent with a wanton and reckless disregard for the lives and safety of its workers. Further, the criminally negligent behaviour was not attributed to high ranking oﬃcials within Metron. Therefore, it appears possible that the criminally negligent behaviour of a single, low-level oﬃcial could lead to a sentence that sends a company into bankruptcy, notwithstanding the absence of systemic conduct or the involvement of highly placed oﬃcials. It is all the more chilling because there is no due diligence defence to a criminal negligence charge and, as noted above, the corporate level at which the criminally negligent behaviour occurred is irrelevant and cannot diminish corporate culpability.
The passage above suggests that when considering whether to impose a ﬁne that will bankrupt a company, the courts will treat employers diﬀerently depending on their size and level of business activity. It appears that smaller employers with modest levels of business activity stand a greater risk of being subjected to a penalty that threatens the viability of their business than larger, more active employers. It is anticipated that this approach will be reﬁned and clariﬁed by future cases to determine the kinds of factor that must be present to have an appropriate case for a corporation to be ﬁned into bankruptcy.
Sentence manifestly unfit
As noted above, the appeal court determined that the sentence imposed on Metron was manifestly unﬁt. In some ways, this ﬁnding incorporates some of the court's other ﬁndings and considerations, but largely weighs the ﬁne imposed by the sentencing court against the totality of the circumstances.
In weighing the circumstances, the appeal court considered mitigating aspects of the case. These included that:
On the other hand, the court also considered the aggravating aspects of the case and noted that:
Interestingly, the court considered the proportionality of the C$200,000 ﬁne originally imposed on Metron in relation to the ﬁne imposed on Metron's president under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. The court noted that Metron's president was ﬁned C$22,500 for each Occupational Health and Safety Act oﬀence, where the potential maximum penalty was C$25,000 per oﬀence. By contrast, the court held that the C$200,000 ﬁne levied against Metron was at the lower end of Occupational Health and Safety Act ﬁnes for fatalities.
The court emphasised that denunciation and deterrence are key factors to consider when determining an appropriate sentence and found that the C$200,000 ﬁne failed to send the requisite deterrent message about the importance of worker safety. Indeed, the court noted that a ﬁne in that amount could even be seen by some companies as a "cost of doing business". For employers, the key takeaway from this part of the decision is that the court held that there is a meaningful general deterrence aspect to sentencing for criminal negligence oﬀences arising from workplace accidents.
When coupled with the court's ﬁnding that criminal negligence represents greater moral blameworthiness, employers can expect that sentences imposed for criminal negligence are likely to be substantial and with the individual circumstances of a company playing a lesser role in determining an appropriate sentence.
This case represents the most recent decision relating to corporate criminal negligence in Canada since the passage of the Bill C-45 amendments to the Criminal Code in 2004. The ﬁne imposed is the highest ever meted out to a corporation under the Criminal Code for a workplace accident, and is the ﬁrst decision in which an appellate court has detailed the application of the Criminal Code sentencing provisions for organisations. In addition, the case presents a stark reminder to employers that, where appropriate, criminal prosecutors and the courts will use the criminal law to punish egregious workplace behaviour of company representatives, and such punishment may threaten the viability of the corporation.
The case should also remind employers to ensure vigilantly that all those in positions of authority at their work sites – whether industrial, construction, mines, service or of another nature – are abiding by all expected workplace safety standards. Steps that could be taken in this regard, especially for higher-risk activities and sites, align closely with certain court-developed due diligence principles, and would include:
Technically, such steps would not provide the corporation with a full defence to a charge of criminal negligence under the Criminal Code that is constituted solely by the actions of a supervisor, as occurred in Metron. This is because, again, the defence of reasonable care or due diligence does not apply to crimes of intent. However, a strong record of positive corporate compliance and monitoring behaviour will prove inﬂuential when the police or prosecutors are considering criminal negligence charges and whether the circumstances warrant pursuing them against the corporation.
Whether the last word on Metron has been written remains to be seen. Metron could seek to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. It is not clear whether Metron will do so or, if it does, whether that court will agree to hear Metron's appeal. Metron has 60 days from the date of the decision to seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.
For further information on this topic please contact Jeremy Warning, Daniel Mayer or Cheryl A Edwards at Heenan Blaikie LLP by telephone (+1 416 360 6336), fax (+1 416 360 8425) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).
(3) The criminal negligence charges against the project manager were the subject of a preliminary inquiry. In January 2013 the court determined that there was suﬃcient evidence for the charges to proceed to trial. That trial is anticipated to begin this fall.
(5) "A representative who plays an important role in the establishment of an organization's policies or is responsible for managing an important aspect of the organization's activities and, in the case of a body corporate, includes a director, its chief executive oﬃcer and its chief ﬁnancial oﬃcer" (Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s 2).
(7) Corporate Manslaughter and Health and Safety Oﬀences Causing Death, Deﬁnitive Guideline, Sentencing Guidelines Council, February 2010, http://sentencingcouncil.judiciary.gov.uk/docs/web__guideline_on_corporate_manslaughter_accessible.pdf.
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