Eastway explosion fines a 'watershed moment'

Lawyer calls $850K penalties 'unprecedented' and puts directors and officers 'on notice'

Eastway explosion fines a 'watershed moment'
Aerial shot of Eastway Tank, Pump & Meter after fatal explosion on January 13, 2022. (Source: Ottawa Police Service)

"This is a watershed moment,” proclaims Cheryl Edwards, partner at Matthews Dinsdale & Clark LLP on a phone call shortly after the penalties against Eastway Tank, Pump & Meter and its owner Neil Greene were announced in an Ottawa courtroom on Friday. “The fines levied against Eastway and its owner are unprecedented,” she says.

Justice Mitch Hoffman accepted and imposed a joint submission from lawyers on both sides, recommending a total of $850,000 in fines and fees to Eastway and Greene. Eastway was fined $600,000, while Greene received a fine of $80,000, with additional 25 percent victim surcharge fees amounting to the total penalty.

An explosion at Eastway in January 2022 caused the deaths of six employees. Rick Bastien, Etienne Mabiala, Danny Beale, Kayla Ferguson, Russell McLellan, and Matt Kearney lost their lives in the blast at the decades-old family business on Merivale Road in Ottawa. Another employee, Tanner Clement, survived but was left with life-altering injuries.

The company and Greene originally faced six charges but pleaded guilty to a total of three charges under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). The other three were dropped.

Eastway and Greene failed to ensure that diesel fuel used in testing tank trucks was not contaminated with gasoline or any other flammable liquid or substance. The company also failed to provide adequate information, instruction, and supervision to workers on safe fuel storage and handling procedures to protect the workers from the hazard of diesel fuel.

Corporate officers and directors on notice

At the time of the incident the maximum penalty for an individual for a single charge under OHSA was $100,000 and for a corporation it was $1.5 million. That means Greene, as the company owner, received 80 percent of the maximum fine.

“The Crown actually said in court... that in seeking to hold Mr. Green accountable, the Crown intends to send a message to corporate directors that they can't take a hands-off approach to health and safety in the businesses they are involved in,” says Edwards.

In July 2022, the maximum penalty for a corporate director or officer jumped by 15 times, meaning an individual can now face a penalty as high as $1.5 million per charge. Edwards suggests the Eastway penalties serve as indication the courts are prepared to impose even higher penalties. “Directors and officers need to be on notice that this is the position that will be taken,” says Edwards.

Some say still not enough

While defence lawyers like Edwards are calling the Eastway penalties significant, others say they don’t go nearly far enough. Sean McKenny is the president of the Ottawa and District Labour Council. He tells CBC News the fines imposed do not reflect the significance of six lives lost.

“I'm not sure what kind of message it sends to the [families]," says McKenny, "but I think to other employers and to the community, it's important the punishment for the offence is on par.

Steven Bittle is a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa and offers a scholarly perspective on the penalties' efficacy. "The magnitude of the explosion demands commensurate consequences," he asserts. "The fines imposed, while substantial, may not fully address the severity of the incident and its lasting repercussions.”

In his ruling Justice Hoffman said factors such as remorse, guilty pleas, and the company’s lack of prior convictions needed to be taken into consideration.

Even with those factors, the fines are still some of the highest the province has ever seen, and with new laws on the books allowing for significantly higher maximums, Edwards believes this could be the beginning of much higher fines for OHSA infractions. "Individual accountability for workplace safety is no longer negotiable,” explains Edwards. “Directors must be actively engaged in ensuring compliance with safety regulations or face dire consequences."