Public Disasters and the Criminal Law

The tragic and unfortunate Costa cruise ship disaster is a good example of how popular social activities, which are inherently legal and legitimate, can turn, on a dime, into a textbook criminal case. It is no surprise the Captain of the ill-fated ship is being investigated for a number of offences, including manslaughter. Indeed, after reading the victims’ accounts of the disaster, it should be expected. But caution is required when demanding “justice” for public disasters through the aegis of the criminal law.

Usually, government uses regulation to control legitimate and desirable activities, which if carried out improperly or without due care, would result in harm to individuals or the public at large. Any breach of regulation may result in a charge under the statute, which is then known as a public welfare offence. Thus, our local dry cleaner, which provides us with clean shirts and starched collars, must conform to government rules regarding the safe and proper use and disposal of chemicals.

When the failure to fulfill regulatory requirements is significantly outside of the public welfare scheme, the conduct becomes criminal and must be framed by the Criminal Code. When the Exxon Valdez struck a reef in 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Alaskan waters, the criminal law was invoked. In 2000, the Walkerton tainted water scandal, which left seven people dead and scores ill from e-coli­ bacterial ingestion, resulted in criminal charges of public endangerment, fraud, and breach of public trust against the two town managers. So too, when the British Columbian Ferry, Queen of the North, ran aground in 2006 causing both an environmental and social disaster (2 people died), the navigation officer, who had control of the ship at the time, was charged with criminal negligence causing death.

However, when these public welfare matters are criminalized, they are treated like any other criminal case. The conduct, which initially arose from legal activities, becomes part of the criminal law nomenclature as it is labeled as manslaughter, criminal negligence, or even murder. By labeling and identifying this conduct as criminal, the matter leaves the public opinion arena and enters a legal one where the case must adhere strictly to all relevant legal principles. Consequently, what appears to be an open and shut case of manslaughter may, in a courtroom, deteriorate into a plea to a lesser charge or even an acquittal.

Not only are legal requirements at issue in such a case, but other factors may impact the prosecution’s ability to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt such as the credibility of witnesses, the conduct of the police, and the availability of institutional resources.  Admittedly, these factors are present when dealing with any criminal case, but when dealing with a public welfare crime, it is very difficult to prove the essential fault element or required criminal intention, which typically deals with a failure of a person to act in accordance with a required standard of care.

In a public welfare case the alleged offender is under a duty or standard of care, which would require him to fulfill his duties and responsibilities with all due care and attention. For a Crown to establish a failure of care, to the criminal standard needed for conviction would require evidence relating to the standard of care and a detailed examination of what those duties and responsibilities are in the circumstances.  Prosecutors would need to delve into corporate culture and industry standards. As a result, such trials can be lengthy and complicated with unsatisfying results.

That explains why the Exxon Valdez’s Captain, charged originally with criminal mischief, operating the Exxon Valdez while intoxicated, and reckless endangerment, and a misdemeanor charge of negligently discharging oil, was only convicted of the misdemeanor and was sentenced to $50,000 restitution order and 1000 hours of community service. It also explains why the town managers in the Walkerton case pleaded guilty to the lesser offence of common nuisance with one accused receiving a conditional sentence of nine moths and the other, a one-year jail term. Finally, it explains why the BC ferry navigator, Karl Lilgert, has yet to be tried on his charges, although the incident occurred in 2006. Lilgert’s preliminary hearing was heard in May 2011 and he is now in the Supreme Court system as he awaits a jury trial.

So, for those awaiting a speedy outcome from the Costa tragedy, or indeed, any other public disaster, they will be disappointed. For the few who actually stick with the case to the bitter end, the result may be even more socially disconcerting. All of this may lead us to wonder if our criminal law can appropriately respond to crimes of such epic proportions and make us re-consider if it even really should in the first place. The problem is: what’s the alternative?