Bid for Lac-Mégantic class-action suit begins in Sherbrooke

Montreal Gazette | June 9, 2014 | Column by Rene Bruemmer

SHERBROOKE — With a small army of lawyers and legal aides at the ready, arguments on whether to authorize one of the largest class-action suits in Canadian history, on behalf of citizens of Lac-Mégantic, began in a crowded Sherbrooke courtroom Monday morning.

Smoke and fire rises over train cars as firefighters inspect the area after a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in the town of Lac-Megantic, 100 kilometres east of Sherbrooke, on Saturday, July 6, 2013. Photograph by: Dario Ayala , The Gazette

The hearings could not be heard in Lac-Mégantic because it does not have a courtroom large enough to accommodate the legal teams of the 53 oil and rail companies and their subsidiaries as well as the government departments and employees named in the proposed class-action suit, as well as lawyers for the victims. More than 3,500 people have signed to join the suit to date.

“As everyone knows, this action arises from a series of closely related events that culminated in the train derailment and the explosion of July 6, 2013,” said lawyer Joel Rochon, of Toronto firm Rochon Genova LLP, one of the three firms working on the suit. “Forty-seven residents of Lac-Mégantic died. Two thousand were forced to leave their homes. … What was once a vibrant lakeside central business district is now a disfigured environmental disaster area which can never be truly fully repaired. The financial and psychological impact on this close-knit community of close to 6,000 residents have changed the face of Lac-Mégantic forever. All residents have suffered losses in different respects.”

Lawyers for the class-action suit allege the train derailment and resulting injuries and damages were caused by the respondents, who they say knowingly used unsafe DOT-111 train cars to transport highly volatile oil that was not labelled as such.

Included among the defendants are Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway and its Canadian operations, former MMA owner Ed Burkhardt, the engineer who parked the train before the fatal explosion, as well as oil companies that supplied the contents and other transportation affiliates involved. The proposed class-action suit, which if approved could result in a settlement in the hundreds of millions of dollars, lawyers estimated, is just one of many legal actions involving disaster victims. In April, judges in Quebec and Maine approved a cross-border process for victims to file claims against the MMA railway companies. Because MMA had only $25 million in insurance, lawyers are hoping implicated firms can be sued to compensate victims and secured creditors, cover cleanup costs and pay damages to companies that have lost business because of the tragedy.

The class-action suit presented in Quebec Superior Court Monday also accused MMA of cutting costs at the expense of safety.

Some firms have already said they will defend themselves on the basis they were not directly involved, or responsible for the actions of subcontractors handling the Lac-Mégantic trains and the oil therein.

In his opening arguments Monday, lawyer Rochon said all implicated companies shared guilt.

“Had the respondents focused on acting reasonably, the outcome would have been much different. …” he said. “We have in this courtroom through the counsel that represents these corporations, some of the most sophisticated, knowledgeable and experienced players in the oil industry. So when you hear (them say during the trial): ‘How were we to know about the DOT-111 cars or the volatility of oil?’ just pause and think, ‘Does this really measure up to the level of credibility required for plausible deniability.’ ”

No victims of the disaster were in court Monday. A plan to teleconference to Lac-Mégantic so victims living more than an hour’s drive from Sherbrooke could watch the proceedings was scrapped because of technical reasons.

[email protected] Twitter: renebruemmer

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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.