October 13, 2015
It has been more than five years since December 24, 2009, when five men fell from the thirteenth storey of a Toronto apartment building after the failure of a swing stage. Four of the men were killed and the lone survivor was very seriously injured. The accident was one of the most tragic workplace accidents in Ontario history. Litigation arising from the accident has not yet concluded. The most recent decision was given on June 26, 2015, when Metron Construction’s project manager, Vadim Kazenelson, was convicted of four charges of criminal negligence causing death and one charge of criminal negligence causing bodily harm (R. v. Kazenelson, 2015 ONSC 3639 (CanLII)).
The decision is notable because it is the most recent of a small number of cases to have applied the workplace-specific duty set out in the criminal negligence provisions of the Criminal Code. That duty requires those with the ability to direct work to take reasonable steps to protect the safety of the people performing the work. This Advisor examines the Kazenelson ruling and how it develops or explains the application of the criminal negligence provisions of the Criminal Code to individuals who supervise or manage work sites. Prior articles have dealt with Metron Construction Corporation and corporate criminal negligence under the Criminal Code. In this piece, the focus will be on individual criminal negligence.
I. The Facts
Mr. Kazenelson’s trial is the first time that the circumstances of December 24, 2009, have been the subject of the trial process. Many factual findings were made by the court. However, for present purposes, the salient court findings were that: Mr. Kazenelson had the ability to control work; the requirement to use fall protection when on a swing stage was understood by workers; Mr. Kazenelson had attended training sessions regarding the use of suspended work platforms that stressed the importance of the use of fall protection by everyone on a swing stage; he was on the swing stage when it failed but managed to pull himself onto a balcony; he knew there were only two lifelines available for use; he was aware that seven men had got on the swing stage to descend to the ground; and he did not know the weight capacity of the swing stage.
II. Lessons and Analysis – Criminal Code Duty for Individuals
The decision contains a number of elements that develop or explain the criminal negligence provisions of the Criminal Code to workplace safety. The decision also explains how the obligations contained within health and safety legislation may be used in assessing criminally negligent behaviour. However, before examining the lessons provided by this decision, it would be a useful reminder to review the proof necessary to establish criminal negligence. Generally speaking, in order for a court to convict an individual of criminal negligence the Crown must establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant:
In this case the Crown relied on the failure to carry out the duty imposed by section 217.1 of the Criminal Code.
(a) Relationship Between OHSA Requirements and Criminal Negligence
Both the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and the Criminal Code place duties on supervisors or those in a position to direct how a person performs work. Section 217.1, which was added to the Criminal Code by the 2004 Bill C-45 amendments, requires that every one “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”. The OHSA prescribes duties on supervisors that, broadly speaking, require supervisors to ensure that workers work in compliance with the requirements of the OHSA and applicable regulations, use the safety equipment and protective devices that are required by the employer, and that workers are informed of any known health and safety hazard.
Prior to Kazenelson, no Ontario court had explored or explained how the provisions of the OHSA could be used to assess an allegation of criminal negligence. However, in Kazenelson, the court confirmed that non-compliance with the OHSA or its regulations is not, in and of itself, proof that a person has contravened section 217.1 of the Criminal Code by failing to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm. However, the court indicated that, because the OHSA and its Regulations are designed to ensure workplace health and safety, they can “assist in identifying what steps it is reasonable to expect a person subject to a duty under s. 217.1 to take to prevent bodily harm in the workplace”.
It may seem a fine distinction that regulatory standards are indications of reasonable steps to take but non-compliance with such reasonable steps, alone, is not proof of a failure to take reasonable steps. In the writers’ view, this means a couple of things. First, that there must be a nexus between the regulatory step and bodily harm. For example, a supervisor could fail to inform a worker of a job site hazard. But, if that hazard did not cause bodily harm to a person, then it would not be a breach of section 217.1 of the Criminal Code. Second, the court was indicating that regulatory steps are not an exhaustive list of steps to be taken to prevent bodily harm. Indeed, in Kazenelson, the court considered the information provided during training sessions conducted by the Construction Safety Association (now the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association).
That said, it must be remembered that, even if the contravention of a legislated health and safety standard is a breach of section 217.1, that alone would not constitute criminal negligence. The Crown would still be required to prove that the individual showed wanton and reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other people.
(b) Unsafe Acts do not Prove Training Deficiency
In Kazenelson, the court examined whether the decision of the workers to board the swing stage without lifelines was indicative of deficient training. Four of the five men who fell had received fall arrest training. The fifth man, the only one to survive the fall, had received some instruction from the site supervisor. Notwithstanding that the instruction provided to the fifth man was insufficient to meet industry standards, the court found that he was aware of the need to tie off when on the swing stage. Ultimately, the court concluded that the decision of the workers to board the swing stage, notwithstanding an absence of lifelines, could not be attributed to a deficiency in their training.
This finding could have implications outside of the criminal negligence context. Frequently, employers are charged with failing to provide adequate information or instruction (i.e. training) to workers. The analysis here confirms that non-compliant behaviour cannot automatically be attributed to a training deficiency and that the courts will look at what the worker actually knew or understood when assessing the sufficiency of training.
(c) Prior Behaviour May be (Mostly) Irrelevant
Kazenelson also explains the scope of the behaviour that will be relevant to a charge of criminal negligence. At trial, the Crown led evidence of Mr. Kazenelson’s behaviour prior to December 24, 2009. The Crown’s position was that this evidence established a “general pattern of poor practices…in relation to health and safety” that was relevant to determining whether Mr. Kazenelson had been criminally negligent. The court disagreed and ruled that Mr. Kazenelson’s conduct, prior to December 24, 2009, “even if substandard, had nothing to do with why six of his workers found themselves on a swing stage 100 feet in the air without the basic fall protection required by both law and industry practice”. As such, the court found that only Mr. Kazenelson’s behaviour on December 24, 2009, was relevant to the criminal negligence analysis.
It is unlikely that this decision means that only a defendant’s behaviour on the alleged day of the offence can be considered for criminal negligence purposes. Indeed, there could be circumstances in which bodily harm or death occurs because of a series of actions that culminate in a particular event or incident. Ultimately, Kazenelson confirms that the scope of relevant behaviour will be determined by the specific allegations in each case and whether there is a connection between such behaviour and the circumstances leading to bodily harm.
Yet, it should be noted that the court considered Mr. Kazenelson’s conduct, prior to December 24, 2009, for a more limited purpose. The court used this evidence to determine that he was a person who had undertaken, or had the authority, to direct others in the performance of work.
(d) One Failure to Act Can Amount to Criminal Negligence for an Individual
At trial, workers testified about the use of fall protection on the project. Some workers gave evidence that they never worked on a swing stage without being tied off and never saw anyone do so. There was also evidence of a clear rule requiring the use of a harness and lanyard. The court heard that the usual practice was to have two workers on a swing stage with two lifelines and that, if a third worker was on the swing stage, a third lifeline would be set up. Finally, workers testified that if Mr. Kazenelson had caught them working without being tied off, they would have been fired. Based on that evidence, the court concluded that “everyone who worked at the site was well aware of the importance of being tied off to a lifeline while working on a swing stage”.
The court also found that Mr. Kazenelson could not be characterized as negligent for not noticing cracks in certain welds on the involved swing stage when he initially inspected it. This was because the cracks had also not been noticed by the certified welders who did the welding, anyone at the company that supplied the swing stage, and the very experienced worker who assembled the swing stage and specifically checked the welds. Finally, the court found that Mr. Kazenelson was not negligent in delegating the responsibility for the daily inspections of the swing stages to the site supervisor and the workers who used them. There was no evidence that the site supervisor, whom Mr. Kazenelson understood to be experienced in balcony restoration work, was not performing equipment inspections. Such evidence is inconsistent with the failure to discharge the duty to protect workers or the wanton and reckless disregard for their lives or safety.
However, Mr. Kazenelson was convicted of criminal negligence because of his actions in the afternoon of December 24, 2009. On that day, the court found that, shortly before the accident, Mr. Kazenelson had ascended to the 13th floor of the building. He did so either by taking the involved swing stage from the ground or from the 12th floor because a unit on that floor allowed access to its balcony. Regardless of exactly how he ascended to the 13th floor, the court found that Mr. Kazenelson would have been aware that there were only two lifelines available for use by those on the swing stage. The court also determined that, when Mr. Kazenelson arrived at the 13th floor, he asked the site supervisor about the lifelines. The site supervisor said “Don’t worry about it” and Mr. Kazenelson took no other steps regarding lifelines. Finally, the court determined that Mr. Kazenelson had permitted six workers to board the swing stage and assisted in loading equipment onto it.
The court found that, by asking the site supervisor about the lifelines, Mr. Kazenelson had identified the serious safety risk of not complying with the fall protection requirements of the OHSA and industry practice, but failed to act to prevent bodily harm. The court determined that the risk that the swing stage could fail was objectively foreseeable and was “virtually the entire reason why the provision of a fall arrest system was regarded as the fundamental rule of swing stage work”. Mr. Kazenelson was also found to have been reckless because he could not have determined the capacity of the unlabelled swing stage. The court found that the totality of Mr. Kazenelson’s conduct amounted to wanton and reckless disregard for the lives or safety of the workers on the swing stage. This amounted to criminal negligence for an individual.
The court’s ruling demonstrates that positive past behaviour, inconsistent with the wanton and reckless disregard for lives or safety, can be displaced by the decision not to ignore safety and fail to prevent harm where the circumstances require action to be taken. Those in positions to direct work should understand that action should be taken when needed. Otherwise, the criminal negligence analysis may focus on a specific, narrow time period and examine it in isolation from one’s broader conduct in the workplace.
III. Next Steps for the Kazenelson Case and Future Application
(a) Sentencing for Mr. Kazenelson
Mr. Kazenelson will, apparently, be sentenced in mid-October 2015. There is a significant possibility that Mr. Kazenelson will be sentenced to jail. Recent cases in which individuals have been convicted of criminal negligence causing death have resulted in custodial sentences. For instance, in R. v. Scrocca, 2010 QCCQ 8218 (CanLII), a Quebec landscape contractor was sentenced to a two year conditional sentence (house arrest) for criminal negligence causing the death of a worker who was struck by a backhoe that had not been maintained. As well, in R. v. Lillgert, 2014 BCCA 493 (CanLII), a marine officer piloting a ferry that sank after running into an island was sentenced to four years in prison for criminal negligence that caused the death of two passengers. The loss of life in Kazenelson was far more significant with four fatalities, and the court has found that Mr. Kazenelson specifically averted to the risk that ultimately led to four deaths and very serious injuries. Further, there was some evidence at trial that Mr. Kazenelson tried to influence statements given by others to the police during their investigation.
Mr. Kazenelson has a right to appeal his conviction and whatever penalty may be imposed on him. We understand that an appeal has already been commenced. Mr. Kazenelson is still facing charges under the OHSA that are waiting until the criminal negligence charges have run their full course. It is not clear whether the Crown will proceed with the OHSA charges. That is a decision that will be made when the criminal negligence charges have been finally determined. The Crown may not proceed with the OHSA charges either because the similarity between the criminal negligence and OHSA charges would mean pursuing the OHSA charges would contravene Mr. Kazenelson’s rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or because the criminal negligence convictions and penalty have diminished the public interest in pursuing the OHSA charges.
(b) Future Application of this Case
Finally, the developments in Kazenelson may be applied in the relatively near future because of criminal negligence charges against an individual arising from a workplace accident were recently laid in Nova Scotia (this is the first criminal charge in the province post-Westray and Bill C-45). There, the owner of a garage at which a mechanic was killed was charged with one count of criminal negligence causing death. He was also charged with twelve offences under the Nova Scotia Occupational Health and Safety Act. The mechanic was killed after the vehicle he was working on caught fire. The court dates for the criminal and provincial charges are October 6 and 8, respectively.
We will continue to monitor both that matter and Kazenelson and provide updates as they progress.