Human error or criminal negligence? Lac Megantic criminal trial begins in Quebec

SHERBROOKE, Que. — Train driver Thomas Harding knows he’s partly at fault for the 2013 Lac-Megantic rail disaster that killed 47 people, but he was following procedure and the tragedy flowed from bad company policy, his lawyer said Monday on the first day of trial.

“Mr. Harding realizes he’s partly responsible for a very serious tragedy and that weighs on him a lot more heavily than the trial,” lawyer Thomas Walsh told reporters.

“Is it human error or criminal negligence? That’s what this case is about.”

Harding and two other ex-railway employees, traffic controller Richard Labrie and manager of train operations Jean Demaitre, are all facing one count of criminal negligence causing the death of 47 people.

All three ex-employees of Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway have pleaded not guilty.

Crown prosecutor Veronique Beauchamp told the 14-member jury in her opening statement that all three men were each responsible in their own way for ensuring the train was safe, and all three failed in their duties.

“Evidence will be presented that will show beyond a reasonable doubt, all three were criminally negligent … they contributed to the deaths of the 47 victims,” Beauchamp said.

An oil-laden locomotive weighing more than 10,000 tonnes was not properly secured the night of July 5, 2013, leaving it resting precariously on a slope, 10 kilometres away from downtown Lac-Megantic, Beauchamp told the court.

Driver Harding brought the train to a stop outside the village of Lac-Megantic and retired for the night. A fire broke out on part of the train roughly 30 minutes after he left.

Around 1 a.m. on July 6, 2013, roughly one hour after firefighters put out the flames and turned off the main engine, the train began moving, picking up speed and barrelling into the town.

“You’ll see that the number of brakes applied to the (train) was clearly insufficient,” Beauchamp said, referring to Harding, whom she said was “responsible for the safe immobilization of the convoy.”

The evidence shows that Labrie, the Crown contends, never inquired about the security of the train after the fire.

“Only after the derailment did he ask Harding how many brakes he put on the train,” Beauchamp said.

Supervisor Demaitre, Beauchamp continued, was told before the derailment that part of the train had mechanical deficiencies.

“The evidence will show that (Demaitre) didn’t take any measures and left the (deficient) locomotive as head of the train block.

“Never did he ensure that a competent person would be sent to on scene ensure the train parked on the slope was safe.”

Walsh, who was the only defence lawyer who spoke to reporters Monday, alleged the company had a culture that neglected safety and his client was only following procedure.

“The people who were responsible for the policy of the company to park an empty train with the engine running — that’s not Harding’s decision. That’s the company’s decision,” Walsh said.

The bankrupt railway company’s former owners and managers should be the ones answering questions at trial but they are in the U.S., Walsh added.

“All of the shortcuts taken were at the expense of safety,” he said. “The real directors of the company … received their subpoenas, they decided not to come.”

The trial’s first witness was retired Quebec provincial police officer Steven Montembeault, who showed the jury aerial footage he took from a helicopter about 15 hours after the derailment.

Light from the setting sun was glimmering on the lake, surrounded by green hills and lush grass of the picturesque town, 250 kilometres east of Montreal.

Then the camera pans to what was left of the centre of the village, and zooms in on firefighters putting out pockets of fire across downtown Lac-Megantic as thick plumes of smoke billowed into the air and could be seen for kilometres.

Following Montembeault was Jacques Lafrance, of the provincial police, who began showing jurors crime scene photos he took of the disaster.

The Crown has signalled it will call 24 civilian and 11 police witnesses, and one expert witness in a trial that is expected to last until December.

Walsh said Harding will “likely” testify in his defence.

Beauchamp said jurors will also be shown video and listen to audio recordings of conversations between railway employees the night of the derailment.

The bankrupt Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway has also pleaded not guilty to causing the deaths of 47 people and will face a separate trial at a later date.

The trial is being held in Sherbrooke, Que,. 150 kilometres east of Montreal.