Criminal charges against company in worker death make history

Sam Fitzpatrick

SAM FITZPATRICK’S COMPLAINTS DIDN’T SAVE HIM. Sam was killed on the job on February 22, 2009. He was crushed to death under a huge bolder. He had warned his bosses something like that might happen just the day before.

It took a twenty year fight to get his employer into court to answer for what happened to Sam. The giant international construction firm Peter Kiewit Sons ULC, and two of its supervisors are charged with a criminal act; with negligence leading to death; with failing to “take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm” to Sam Fitzpatrick.

The alleged offenses by the two supervisors carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. The company could face penalties including large fines and stringent probation terms, if found guilty of the same offense,

The fact such charges were laid at all is a victory for all Canadian working people.

A new level of enforcement

Steve Bittle, a University of Ottawa criminologist, says the charges mark a new level of enforcement since the 2004 passage of the Westray Act, which made it possible to charge companies with criminal negligence.

“We really haven’t seen the Westray law’s provisions tested in court,” says Bittle. “This makes the Kiewit case significant in that, perhaps, it signals improvements in the Westray law’s enforcement.”

It took a decade of lobbying by the United Steelworkers and other allies to get the Westray Act passed in the first place. It took another 10 years of ongoing efforts by family, friends and the labour movement, after Sam Fitzpatrick was killed, to bring the Westray law to bear on his case.  

The original WorkSafeBC investigation of Sam’s death fined Kiewit, but ruled it could not be certain company actions caused the bolder to become dislodged and roll.

The ruling, however, was no exoneration. It said that Peter Kiewit Sons had “committed high risk violations with reckless disregard” in connection with the death. Many workers had complained about risky practices on the site—including Sam Fitzpatrick the day before he died.


United Steelworkers District 3 director Stephen Hunt says “There are far too many examples of workers dying and employers getting off the hook. Charges such as this one point to the need for our Stop the Killing, Enforce the Law campaign to continue.”

The Kiewit trail opened in Vancouver on September 6. The outcome will tell us a lot about how much we truly value our working people.

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