Judge drops final OHS charge against Meaford, Ont., fire department

Justice of the Peace Thomas Stinson has released his final judgement on the Reeds fire incident in Meaford, Ont., dropping the final remaining charge under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
The municipality of Meaford and its fire department were charged by the Ministry of Labour for failing to take every reasonable precaution to protect workers, after responding to a fire at Reeds Restaurant in September 2009. Two Meaford and district fire department firefighters were injured while searching Reeds Restaurant for the owner, who they believed was inside the burning building.

In a written decision filed with Provincial Offences Court in Owen Sound, Ont., Justice of the Peace Stinson says “because of the inherent unpredictable and dangerous nature of firefighting, defences such as mistake of fact and necessity may well be more easily relied upon by fire departments than they might by other defendants in workplace injury cases that occur, for example, on an assembly line in a factory.”

Fire Chief Mike Molloy welcomed the decision. “A charge resulting from us trying to save a life, would have a negative impact on every fire department and firefighter in this country, and could have resulted in jeopardizing public safety," Molloy said in a statement. "It would be very difficult for us to do our job in an emergency life or death situation knowing that legal proceedings may follow."

Molloy noted a firefighter's occupation has an "inherent element of danger attached to the job at times, and that’s part of the job."

"That’s not to say we throw safety out the window. We do our job as safely as possible, when possible. There is not a chief in this country that would intentionally put a firefighter in harm’s way."

The Meaford fire chief said he's glad to see the case come to a conclusion, as the on-going case "has been tough on our guys, and our department.”

Defence lawyer Norm Keith said he was pleased with the decision. “I feel delighted for the clients. I feel justice has been served and done,” he said.

A verdict of guilty, he added, would have dealt a serious blow to volunteer fire services.

“It would have sent shock waves through volunteer fire departments, especially in Ontario. They would have said, ‘Why bother? This is too dangerous, too risky, and we’re trying to volunteer, to serve the community. We have less resources than a full-time fire department. But when something goes wrong, we don’t get hero awards, we get prosecuted. We get taken to court,’” he said.

“And that’s not right. That’s not fair.”

Keith said the case was unusual because the Ministry of Labour did not have enough reason to prosecute. “Just because something went wrong and someone was injured doesn’t mean that you should prosecute,” he said.

While pleased by the verdict, however, Keith said he was concerned that Justice of the Peace Stinson did not deal with his allegation that the prosecutor’s use of non-legal regulations as law was an abuse of process. The regulations (“Section 21 Committee Guidelines”) provide guidelines for fire services.

“[The section] was treated as if it was law, and it’s not. The document itself, the guidelines, says explicitly it is not the law. So it was quite offensive to take a non-legal, non-legislative standard, act as if it is the law and say, if you don’t meet this standard perfectly, we’re going to prosecute you,” he said.

“So I think it’s a victory for fire departments and for the rule of law. A guideline is not the law.”

The ministry may appeal the decision within 30 days.