Criminal Negligence

RCMP Investigation into Meat-Packing Worker’s Death from COVID-19

Written on behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

For the first time in Canadian history, the RCMP have confirmed that they are investigating a workplace fatality due to COVID-19.

Ariana Quesada, the 16-year-old daughter of Benito Quesada (“Quesada”), filed a complaint with the High River RCMP detachment earlier this month alleging that the Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, Alberta was negligent in protecting its workers from COVID-19.  Quesada died of COVID-19 on May 7, 2020. 

Quesada immigrated from Mexico in 2007 and began working at Cargill in October 2007 in the slaughterhouse’s kill floor.  He worked his way up to the position of a union shop steward.  At the time of his death he was a permanent resident of Canada and was 51 years of age.  He was a husband and a father.  Quesada spent approximately a month in hospital before he died. 

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE CARGILL PLANT IN ALBERTA?

Last spring, Quesada and fellow worker, Bui Thi Hiep, 67 years of age, both died from COVID-19.  Armando Sallegue, 71 years of age, who lived with his son that worked at the packing plant also died of COVID-19. 

Nearly 1000 employees, almost half of the plant’s workers, tested positive for the virus.  There are also hundreds of individuals who contracted the deadly virus who could be linked back to the outbreak at the meat-packing plant.

According to Ariana Quesada, a representative of Cargill contacted her family approximately a month after her father’s death and provided an apology, although they did not admit that the company could have done more to avoid the fatalities.

A Globe and Mail investigation exposed that Cargill was slow to take action to protect its employees, many of whom are immigrants.  Workers claim that their employer cleared them for work despite their COVID-19 symptoms, positive test results, incomplete isolation periods and foreign travel. 

It has been alleged that Cargill employees were pressured to keep working and were even offered a $5,000 bonus if they worked for eight straight weeks without missing a shift. 

In response to learning of the RCMP investigation, Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notely stated:

There are many unanswered questions, which is why today’s confirmation that the RCMP will be investigating the circumstances of the Cargill outbreak is welcome news. … These workers and their families deserve to know how their health and safety was considered in Cargill’s decision to keep the plant open during the outbreak.  They deserve answers.  … And despite calls from myself, as well as NDP MLAs Christina Gray and Lorne  Dach, for swift action from the UCP government to protect the health and safety of these workers, they refused to intervene.

As of the writing of this blog, Cargill spokesperson Daniel Sullivan reported that the company had not seen the complaint or been contacted by RCMP.  Mr. Sullivan stated that safety remains the company’s top priority:

Maintaining a safe workplace has long been one of our core values and we recognize that the well-being of our plant employees is integral to our business and to the continuity of the food supply chain throughout Canada.

CRIMINAL LIABLITY FOR WORKPLACE DEATHS AND INJURIES

Under the Westray Law (section 217.1 Criminal Code), corporations can be held criminally responsible for workplace deaths and injuries.  This legislation came into effect following the loss of 26 miners in the Westray Mine in Pictou County, Nova Scotia on May 9, 1992.  Safety concerns had been raised by employees, union officials and government inspectors prior to the explosion, which was caused when a buildup of methane gas and coal dust ignited. 

Westray Law came into force on March 31, 2004 and established criminal liability of corporations by:

  • Establishing rules for attributing criminal liability to organizations for the acts of their representatives;
  • Established a legal duty for all persons directing the work of others to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of workers and the public;
  • Set out factors that a court must consider when sentencing an organization; and
  • Provided conditions of probation that a court may impose on an organization.

Westray Law creates a legal duty for all organizations or individuals who have the authority to direct how others work to take all reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to the person performing the work, and to any other person.

Employees of Cargill and other food processing plants in Ontario have also affected by COVID-19.  Last week, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health confirmed that one death in Guelph was related to the Guelph Cargill meat processing facility.  It has not been confirmed whether the 79-year old male worked at the plant or was connected to someone who worked there. 

We will continue to follow new information regarding how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the Canadian justice system and will provide updates in this blog

If you have been charged with a criminal offence or have any questions regarding your legal rights, it is recommended that you contact an experienced criminal defence lawyer.  The lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP have many years of experience defending a wide variety of criminal offences.  Contact our office today online or at 905-404-1947.  We offer a 24-hour phone service to protect your rights and to ensure that you have access to justice at all times.