In 2014, Saskatchewan overhauled existing occupational health and safety legislation by enacting The Saskatchewan Employment Act (the “SEA”). Among vast changes, the SEA set out a new sentencing regime for corporations facing occupational health and safety related violations. This included increasing the maximum allowable fine in the sentencing of corporate offenders from $300,000 to $1.5 million.
The new sentencing provisions were considered on appeal for the first time by the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench in the decision of R v Carrier Forest Products Ltd., 2019 SKQB 84.
Carrier Forest Products Ltd. (“Carrier”) pled guilty to an occupational health and safety charge under the SEA following a tragic accident resulting in an employee fatality. A judge of the provincial court of Saskatchewan sentenced the company to a fine of $87,500, which included the applicable 40% victim fine surcharge.
The Crown appealed this sentence, arguing it was too low. The Crown had originally requested a $500,000 fine plus a 40% victim surcharge for a total of $700,000.
On appeal, the Court of Queen’s Bench affirmed the $87,500 penalty and the sentencing judge’s key findings influencing what he viewed as a proportionate and appropriate sentence. The Court specifically noted that:
- Carrier had no history of safety violations or convictions;
- Carrier’s degree of responsibility and culpability was low in the circumstances due to Carrier’s extensive safety-specific programming, the precise nature of the safety equipment at issue and the circumstances of the accident;
- Carrier responded to the tragedy with integrity;
- Carrier employed 136 people in high quality jobs; and
- At the time of the accident, Carrier was operating with limited financial resources.
The Court further affirmed that the sentencing judge did not err when he considered the fact that the accident occurred in Big River, Saskatchewan – a rural center largely dependent on Carrier for employment and economic activity – and that Carrier operated within an industry negatively affected by punitive lumber tariffs imposed by the United States.
A central piece of the Crown’s case on appeal was its argument that, because the maximum allowable fines increased under the SEA, the legislature had signaled an intention that all sentences for occupational health and safety violations should be increased no matter the circumstances of the offence or the offender. This argument was specifically rejected by the Court. Following R. v Pederson, 2000 SKQB 255 and R. v Sage Well Services Ltd., 2000 SKQB 259, the Court specifically rejected this argument.
In the absence of increases to both the minimum and maximum allowable fines, the Court took the view that the legislature did not necessarily intend that fines should be increased generally.
Rather, the better conclusion to be drawn was that the Legislature simply intended to ensure “fines for the largest corporations that are the worst offenders could be large enough to ensure that the fine would not be simply the cost of doing business” (See: at paragraph 35).
In doing so, the Court confirmed that sentencing judges rendering decisions under the SEA should not increase fines being imposed simply based on the increased allowable maximums for corporations. Penalties for occupational health and safety violations should instead continue to be rendered on the basis of the applicable legal principles including parity and fitness. Further, the Court indicated that pre-amendment cases under the legislation can be considered on questions of sentencing parity and fitness.