A B.C. tugboat company has pleaded guilty to Workers Compensation Act charges for its role in a sinking that left two men dead.
James Bates and his company, Wainwright Marine, faced eight regulatory charges related to the sinking of Ingenika, a tugboat that capsized in freezing waters off the coast of Kitimat in 2021.
Capt. Troy Pearson, 58, and deckhand Charley Cragg, 25, died.
Bates, speaking in court in Prince Rupert last week, told their families he was sorry.
“I wish I could go back to that day and change the outcome, but I can’t,” Bates said.
The defence and Crown reached a suggested plea agreement that saw Bates plead guilty to one of the eight counts under the Workers Compensation Act. Wainwright Marine, of which Bates is the owner and sole director, pleaded guilty to three. The rest of the charges were stayed.
Under that deal, Bates and his company would pay $315,000 for their role in the disaster. Bates would also serve 100 hours of community service.
Provincial court Judge Nina Purewal reserved her final decision on the sentence.
The plea comes amid investigations into the sinking that highlighted numerous safety violations at Wainwright Marine and major oversight gaps in the marine transportation sector.
“The result was entirely foreseeable,” Crown prosecutor Christina Godlewski said in court.
Ingenika set sail from Kitimat on Feb. 10, 2021, towing a barge bound for a hydroelectric project run by mining company Rio Tinto. The vessel departed despite bad weather conditions, including a forecast for freezing spray and gale-force winds.
The ship issued a distress signal shortly after midnight on Feb. 11. The signal vanished shortly after.
Rescue crews found and rescued Zac Dolan, a crew member who had escaped the sinking vessel and swam to safety. Godlewski said Dolan suffered frostbite to his legs and had two toes amputated as a result.
A subsequent federal Transportation Safety Board investigation found Wainwright crews were given inconsistent instructions during safety drills and that some life-saving equipment was not maintained.
The board found the survival suits given to mariners were defective, causing them to fill up with icy water as the boat went under.
Godlewski said in court that Cragg, who was working his first day at Wainwright Marine, had only been given an “informal” tour of the vessel before it set sail, which was not formally documented.
“Workplace safety has real and sometimes tragic consequences, and these sentences must be designed to deal with this reality,” Godlewski said.
Wainwright Marine had previously paid a $62,000 Transport Canada fee related to the sinking.
Criminal charges against companies whose employees die on the job are extremely rare in Canada, and none have been filed against Bates or his company.
The maximum sentence for a charge under the Workers Compensation Act, a piece of provincial legislation, is a fine of just over $830,000 or six months of jail.
Graeme Hooper, Bates’ lawyer, said during trial that safety protocols at Wainwright Marine have changed since the accident.
“I appreciate the magnitude of this tragedy is not matched by the fine. That’s not how we determine the fine,” Hooper said.
Genevieve Cragg, Charley’s mother, said in an interview that the proposed penalties do not seem severe enough given the loss suffered by her and Pearson’s family.
“It certainly doesn’t correspond at all to the severity of what happened,” Cragg said.
During the trial Cragg and Judy Carlick-Pearson, Troy’s widow, described the life-changing pain of their loss. They said the grief affected their mental health, their careers and their relationships. Carlick-Pearson and Pearson’s son was only 11 when his father died.
“Our lives were stolen, our futures were stolen, and so many other things were robbed from us,” Carlick-Pearson said in court.
Normally, fines paid under the Workers Compensation Act are added to WorkSafe BC’s accident fund.
But Godlewski said families had asked for the money to instead go towards an initiative more directly related to their loved ones, given the accident fund’s healthy surplus. Its portfolio was valued at more than $23 billion as of last year.
In the meantime, observers hope the Ingenika case leads to regulatory reform in the tugboat industry.
Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach says he wants the federal government to begin inspecting all tugboats, regardless of their size, something the Transportation Safety Board also recommended.
The government currently only has mandatory inspections for tugboats over 15 tonnes. But many smaller boats that were originally built for use in sheltered waters in British Columbia are now used on the open water, which industry experts say poses a safety risk.
Former transport minister Omar Alghabra had committed only to inspecting 10 per cent of all vessels, something Bachrach said is inadequate.
“There’s the rules that were broken, and there’s the rules that were never written in the first place. That speaks to a level of systemic negligence by the federal government which allowed companies to operate in a very unsafe way, for years,” said Bachrach, the NDP’s transportation critic.
Bachrach says he also wants tougher penalties for companies that are found negligent when workers die on the job. He said the penalty Bates and Wainwright may pay under the plea deal did not seem large enough.
“I suppose the question is what the objective is. If the objective is to deter other companies from similar negligence, I’m not sure that consequences of that magnitude will be effective,” he said.
Cragg said she will continue to honour her son’s memory.
“There’s no moving on. You learn to rebuild yourself, to reinvent yourself. I’m reinventing myself. But I’m certainly not moving on,” Cragg said.
Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee