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Dawson City-area placer mine, owner guilty on charges related to 2021 death of employee

Territorial court judge John Phelps formally accepted the pleas Friday.  (Lilian Fridfinnson/CBC - image credit)
Territorial court judge John Phelps formally accepted the pleas Friday. (Lilian Fridfinnson/CBC - image credit)

A Dawson City-area placer mine and one of its owners have been found guilty of four charges related to the 2021 death of a worker who was killed after the bulldozer he was driving, which didn't have safety equipment installed, slipped off a road and rolled.

Stuart Placers Ltd. and Roger Stuart originally entered guilty pleas in May to two counts each under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Territorial court judge John Phelps formally accepted the pleas Friday.

The charges were laid after longtime employee Richard Cull, 41, died on April 23, 2021.

According to an agreed statement of facts read to the court by the Crown, Stuart Placers, a family-owned operation with a half-dozen employees, had recently purchased a D-10N Caterpillar bulldozer that was delivered to the top of the road leading to the mine site and shop.

Stuart and Cull had driven up the road, known as the "switchbacks," that morning to meet the delivery driver. Once the bulldozer arrived, the two — both experienced operators — decided Cull would drive it down to the shop, a journey of about three to five kilometres.

Much of the safety equipment and attachments on the bulldozer had been removed to allow for it to be shipped to the Yukon, the statement says, including its rollover protective structure, blade and ice cleats.

The statement also noted that rollover protective structures are mandatory for bulldozers weighing more than 700 kilograms.

The Caterpillar bulldozer driven by Cull weighed more than 50,000 kilograms.

Stuart drove back to the shop first and called Cull "some time after," who said he was at the last Black Hills Creek crossing about a kilometre away and that all was "going good."

Stuart expected Cull to arrive in about 15 minutes. When he didn't, he called again but Cull didn't answer.

Cab of bulldozer 'flattened'

The agreed statement of facts says Stuart drove out to look for him. When he reached the creek crossing, Stuart said he could hear the bulldozer but couldn't see it. He started to drive back but "noted a patch of ice on the road" where it appeared the bulldozer had slipped off, and he ran down the embankment closer to the sound.

The "machine didn't sound right" to Stuart, according to the statement; when he moved into a position where he could see it, he noted that it was upright but "didn't look good."

However, he wasn't able to get to it due to the creek and went back to the shop to get help. He returned with another employee and they got to the bulldozer, where they found Cull dead inside the cab.

The agreed statement of facts says that while road conditions on the switchbacks were "generally good," the bulldozer "went left off the side of the road at a very icy location." From there, it rolled down a 21-metre slope, "proceeded in reverse" for about 67 metres, dropped down another 55-metre slope while "possibly rolling sideways or end over end once again," and reversed another 70 metres, including across the creek, before getting tangled in trees.

The cab of the bulldozer was "flattened to a level below where Mr. Cull's head would have been."

The document notes Stuart Placers and Stuart could have installed the safety equipment on the bulldozer — the rollover protective structure, ripper shank and blade were all already at the shop, while the ice cleats were in Dawson City and at a nearby mine but hadn't been picked up yet.

The rollover protective structure, designed to prevent the cab of the bulldozer from being crushed in the event of a rollover, would have only needed to be secured by bolts. The document quotes Stuart saying, of installing the structure, "10 minutes and it would have been on."

The agreed statement of facts says Cull was "like a brother" to Stuart.

Stuart and another employee cleared the ice off the switchbacks and re-routed the road after the incident.

Crown asks for $115K in fines

In sentencing submissions, territorial Crown Lee Kirkpatrick argued that fines totalling $115,000 would be appropriate.

She asked that the company be fined $25,000 for the charge of failing to take all reasonable precautions to prevent an occupational injury, and $40,000 for not having a rollover protective structure on the bulldozer before putting it into service.

Kirkpatrick also argued that Stuart, in his role as Cull's supervisor, should be fined $25,000 for allowing a worker to operate unsafe equipment and another $25,000 for failing to ensure that Cull was performing work without undue risk.

She acknowledged the mine was a small operation but noted that Stuart was aware of the road conditions that day and knew that the bulldozer didn't have safety equipment installed.

Lawyer Luke Faught asked that the company and Stuart be fined $10,000 for each count, pointing out the "very small size" of the company, the guilty pleas and Stuart's remorse. He also argued that the judge needed to take into account that Stuart spent five days rerouting the road after Cull's death to improve safety.

Both the Crown and defence agreed that the fine should also be subject to a 15 per cent victim fine surcharge.

Given the chance to speak to the court directly, Stuart said he couldn't change what happened but takes full responsibility.

"I lost my best friend that day," he said through tears. "Nothing's going to change that, so that's basically all I have to say."

Phelps reserved his decision.