By Zach Vecera, The Tyee
A British Columbia company is facing rare criminal charges 11 years after an employee was crushed to death on the job.
Prosecutors charged J. Cote & Son Excavating Ltd. Charged with criminal negligence causing death and criminal negligence causing injury in connection with the 2012 death of Jeff Caron, a pipe layman who was killed while working on a company project in Burnaby.
This is a rare example of companies facing criminal charges related to the death of a worker. Thomas Risher, one of Caron’s co-workers, was injured in the same accident.
The same charges have been brought against David Green, the foreman at the site, who also faces an additional charge of manslaughter.
The charges are one of about two dozen in Canadian history for a company accused of criminal negligence in the death of an employee. Karon’s friends and family welcomed the news, and some have been calling for such accusations for nearly a decade.
“Even then, I remember saying, these things often get swept under the rug and nothing really happens,” said Travis Blanchard, a childhood friend of Caron’s.
“I am really happy to hear that something has happened and that someone is held accountable.”
Company, the foreman will plead not guilty
Attorneys for the company and Green said they will not plead guilty.
Bill Smart, a senior defense attorney, says J. Cote & Son “will not comment on the allegations other than to say the company denies them, intends to plead not guilty, and intends to proceed with the trial.”
Brock Martland, the attorney representing Green, says his client “denies these accusations in the strongest possible way.”
Martland said he expects the matter to go to trial, adding that he was surprised that charges were filed for so long after Caron’s death.
“It’s an extraordinary amount of time,” Martland said.
At the time, Caron was part of a team carrying out excavation work to replace a storm and sewer line in North Burnaby. A concrete wall adjacent to the trench collapsed pinning Caron. He later died of his injuries.
A 2014 WorkSafeBC investigation found that the wall had collapsed as a result of the company’s excavation work. The report said J. Cote & Son, the project’s main contractor, had failed to assess the risk posed by the wall.
The company replied that it had dug the trench according to an assessment provided by a professional engineer.
Richer told WorkSafeBC that he had repeatedly expressed his concerns to Green about job site safety, which Richer also reiterated in his comments to the media at the time. Richer declined to be interviewed for this article, citing the ongoing lawsuit.
WorkSafeBC did not issue sanctions at the time, instead turning over the information to the Burnaby RCMP in 2014.
“Justice for Jeff”
When Caron died, Blanchard was part of a group of friends and family who organized protests under the slogan “Justice for Jeff”.
Blanchard grew up with Caron in Warman, a small town north of Saskatoon. Blanchard said he and Caron would spend their afternoons listening to music and playing guitar in their bedroom — Metallica, Marilyn Manson, and later soft rock. Blanchard said Caron, who grew up in a foster home, was almost part of the family. “He was the type who would take his shirt off his back for you. He always put a smile on everyone’s face the moment he walked in,” Blanchard said.
Over time, Blanchard said, members of the Justice for Jeff movement lost contact with them. He said some fear the company will never be charged. Karon’s biological mother, Cindy Kamm, told CBC in 2014 that she welcomed the criminal investigation.
Linda Gardibi, Caron’s aunt, said Cam died about 18 months ago. Gardibi said she welcomed the accusations.
“I feel good,” she said. “Someone must be responsible for his death.”
Few charges and convictions
Only a small number of companies and supervisors have been charged with criminal negligence causing death in Canada, and even fewer have been convicted.
“It’s not common,” said Stephen Bittle, a professor and criminologist at the University of Ottawa.
Bittle is a leading researcher on the Westray Bill, a 2004 bill that would allow Crown Attorneys General in Canada to hold companies criminally liable when workers die on the job. The bill is named after the 1992 Nova Scotia mining disaster, which left 26 people dead.
But as of 2022, there have been only nine successful prosecutions under Westray, and most have resulted in fines. As a result, only one person served a prison sentence. This is because Canada’s criminal law is “designed” to deal with individuals, Bittle said.
“Criminal law deals well with these types of scenarios,” Bittle said. “What the criminal law doesn’t deal with very well is, why didn’t the individual feel like they didn’t have the opportunity to support that wall? Were there decisions in the company that cut things short?”
For negligence to amount to criminality, Bittle said, prosecutors usually have to go so far as to consider a person’s actions a “significant” departure from what a reasonable person would do under the same circumstances.
When this logic is applied to a company, he said, it can be particularly difficult to prove given the layers of supervisors, managers, and employees involved.
It’s easier to charge small businesses
That’s why Westray’s charges are so often brought only against small companies, like J. Cote and Son, which had about 20 employees as of 2014, Bittle said.
“It’s not hard to trace the chain of command in terms of who knew what, who should have done what, and who had an obligation to do what,” Bittle said.
Bittle noted that the complexity of such cases may have contributed to the long investigation.
“The standard answer you get is that they are complex cases. The police don’t always have the resources or the expertise to investigate them and it takes a long time to do that,” Bittle said.
The United Steel Workers union is calling for tougher penalties for companies involved in the killings. Scott Looney, USW District 3 director, said he believes police and prosecutors should apply the law more frequently.
“The goal is not for a lot of people to go to jail. The goal is to have that as a realistic outcome if you don’t do what you have to do as a company,” Looney said.