SHERBROOKE, Que. – The engineer of the train that derailed, exploded and killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic didn’t act perfectly the night of the tragedy, but he acted reasonably, his lawyer said in his closing arguments Monday.
Lawyer Charles Shearson told the 14 jurors Tom Harding didn’t conduct a proper brake test on the train after he parked the oil-laden convoy outside the small town the night of July 5, 2013. Neither did he apply a sufficient number of handbrakes, but the engineer did leave the locomotive engine on, and applied the air brakes, as per company rules, Shearson said.
“The train wasn’t going anywhere,” he told the courtroom.
But after Harding left for his hotel, a blaze broke out on the locomotive and the firefighters called to the scene turned the engine off, releasing air pressure and compromising the brake system.
Early the following morning, the train began moving on its own, headed down to Lac-Megantic, derailed and exploded, killing the 47 and destroying part of the downtown core.
Harding and his two former colleagues, Richard Labrie and Jean Demaitre, have all pleaded not guilty to one count of criminal negligence causing the death of 47 people.
Labrie was the traffic controller and Demaitre the manager of train operations.
“The combination of the conduct of many people – I suggest to you conduct done in good faith – with the engine shut down drastically aggravated events” and led to the tragedy, Shearson argued.
“A tragedy happened. But we don’t find people criminally responsible for accidents.”
He added no evidence was presented during the trial explaining how the fire started on the locomotive.
Shearson said despite Harding not following all the rules “perfectly,” he wasn’t acting outside normal company procedures.
He said Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, which owned the train and the tracks, didn’t inform Harding of the latent risks of parking a train in such a location and that his deviation from the rules that night was not a criminal act.
Shearson suggested the company didn’t conduct risk analyses of the area where Harding parked the convoy, while its operating rules regarding how to secure trains were not properly communicated to employees.
“We can’t criminalize every departure from a rule,” Shearson said. “Although Harding’s conduct was not perfect, it was reasonable. When you look at the entirety of the evidence you have the image of a very reliable man.”
Shearson told jurors the evidence presented during the trial showed the proper number of brakes that needed to be applied to the train was discovered only after the tragedy.
Moreover, he said in order to find Harding guilty, jurors need to believe he showed a “marked and substantial departure from the norm – (the accused’s) mindset has to be so careless it shows a wanton disregard for the lives and safety of others.”
Shearson replayed a recording heard earlier during the trial of a conversation between Harding and another railway employee the night of the derailment, during which the accused is told the locomotive caught fire after he had left for the night.
Harding is heard asking whether someone was heading to the fire site and if he needed to return to help out. He is told the situation was under control and to go back to bed.
“The evidence of (Harding’s) state of mind that night shows he was conscientious and not reckless,” Shearson said.
The Crown has argued Harding neither applied the required number of brakes on the train nor tested the system properly to ensure the brakes were working before he left for the night.
Shearson is to finish his arguments Tuesday and Quebec Superior Court Justice Gaetan Dumas is expected to give his instructions to the jury Wednesday.
The Crown delivered its closing arguments last week, as did lawyers representing Labrie and Demaitre.