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Quebec court says Canadian Pacific Railway not liable in Lac-Mégantic train crash

MONTREAL — A Quebec Superior Court judge has found that Canadian Pacific Railway was not liable in the 2013 railway disaster that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Que.
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in Lac-Megantic, Que., July 6, 2013. A Quebec Superior Court judge has found Canadian Pacific Railway not liable in the 2013 Lac-Megantic tragedy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

MONTREAL — A Quebec Superior Court judge has found that Canadian Pacific Railway was not liable in the 2013 railway disaster that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Que.

Justice Martin Bureau ruled Wednesday that the actions the railway company was accused of were not the "direct, immediate and logical cause of the damages" suffered by the victims of the tragedy.

"The court's analysis of all the circumstances related to this tragedy that was cited in evidence, as well as the application of the rules and customs of the railway industry and the transportation of dangerous goods, as well as the applicable legislative and regulatory provisions, lead it to conclude that the defendant CP has no legal responsibility in this tragic accident," Bureau wrote. 

The lawsuit against CP was filed by three Lac-Mégantic residents who lost family members in the disaster — Guy Ouellet, Serge Jacques and Louis-Serge Parent — on behalf of all the victims.

In the suit, the plaintiffs alleged that CP knew Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway Limited (MMA), the owner of the runaway train, chose unsafe train routes and that CP misclassified crude oil coming from North Dakota.

Bureau concluded the fault for the disaster lies with the train's engineer and his employer. 

"The responsibility rests primarily with the locomotive engineer and last driver of the train, Mr. Thomas Harding, and the company that employs him and was in charge of this train at the time of its derailment, the defendant Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway Limited," the judge wrote.

The train carrying crude oil from the United States was handed off from CP to an MMA-controlled rail network in Montreal for its final journey to a New Brunswick refinery.

Before it made it to New Brunswick, the train was parked for the night on a slope leading into Lac-Mégantic and the brakes failed. It rolled into town early on July 6, 2013, and derailed, with its cargo exploding and decimating part of the downtown core.

Harding and two other MMA employees were later charged with criminal negligence causing death and were acquitted of all charges in January 2018.

In his decision, Bureau wrote that CP argued it was in no way responsible for supervising or inspecting the condition of MMA's rail tracks, which it said was Transport Canada's responsibility. The judge also found it was the original shipper, World Fuel Services, that was responsible for the misclassification of the crude oil. 

In an email on Wednesday, Salem Woodrow, a spokesperson for CP, said the company believes the court reached the proper conclusion. 

"The tragedy of July 6, 2013, involving a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train will remain forever etched in our hearts and minds," Woodrow said. "We remember the lives lost. Our thoughts remain with their families and loved ones, the people of Lac-Mégantic and all those affected by this tragedy."

CP was the only company accused of responsibility in the derailment that did not participate in a $430-million settlement fund for victims, which was created as part of a class-action lawsuit involving almost 4,000 people.

The company maintained it bore no responsibility for the disaster because the train was not operated by CP employees or travelling on CP tracks when it derailed.

Julie Morin, the mayor of Lac-Mégantic, was not available for comment about the court decision Thursday. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 15, 2022. 

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Marisela Amador, The Canadian Press