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Corporation fined after young man lost 3 limbs

Son `reduced to tax-deductible expense': Parents
Crown withdraws charges against ex-CEO, directors

Toronto Star - September 12, 2003
by Moira Welsh and Karl Sepkowski

SAULT STE. MARIE, Ontario — An Ontario court has fined a giant power corporation $250,000 for its role in the workplace accident that left 21-year-old Lewis Wheelan a triple amputee.

But Ministry of Labour prosecutors withdrew charges yesterday against the directors and former CEO of Brascan-owned Great Lakes Power Ltd. for their role in ensuring the company's safety practices were followed.

That decision has angered the Wheelan family, who say it sends a message that corporate responsibility doesn't matter.

"Today Lewis was written off — literally," family lawyer Dave Wilken said yesterday outside the Sault Ste. Marie courthouse.

"In accepting a guilty plea from Great Lakes Power corporation only, while failing to pursue any individual directors of that corporation, the government has reduced Lewis to a tax-deductible business expense," Wilken said, reading from a statement by the Wheelan family.

Great Lakes pleaded guilty to one charge of failing to train, supervise and protect a worker under Section 25(2)(a) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Government lawyer Wes Wilson said the $250,000 fine — half of the maximum penalty — reflected the fact that this was Great Lakes' first safety offence.

Wheelan, who died alone in his Toronto apartment during last month's massive power blackout, was working on a tree-cutting crew for a Great Lakes contractor in May, 2001, when a tree broke through a live hydro line, jolting him with 7,200 volts of electricity.

His burns were so severe that he lost his right arm, shoulder and both legs. The remainder of his body was covered in extensive skin grafts. His family believes that the grafting, which left his skin unable to breathe, led to his death because without air conditioning, his body temperature couldn't be regulated.

Great Lakes president Colin Clark told reporters yesterday that Wheelan's accident "should never have happened." "We are deeply sorry that it did. We have always and continue to be committed to operating our facilities safely," he said.

Yesterday's hearing marks the end of Great Lakes' involvement in the court case, which began in May, 2002, when the ministry laid a series of charges against everyone from Wheelan's fellow crewmen to Great Lakes' top decision-makers.

Company directors Harry Goldgut and Edward Kress, who also serve as executive vice-presidents with Brascan Corp. in Toronto, were charged under Section 32 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, a regulation that requires corporate leaders to ensure that employee safety procedures are followed. Those charges were withdrawn yesterday.

In the past 11 years, the ministry has laid more than 100 charges against company directors in Ontario.

Yesterday, the same Section 32 charge against Great Lakes' former CEO, Mike McEwan, was dropped in court, as were additional charges against company supervisor Steve McClinchey.

The labour ministry is proceeding with its case against tree-cutter Brian Campbell, who was working on Wheelan's crew the day of the accident. The contractor, Mike Piccolo, has already pleaded guilty for his involvement in the accident. He received a $15,000 fine.

Ontario NDP Leader Howard Hampton demanded that Premier Ernie Eves explain why the charges against the directors were dropped. "I want Ernie Eves to explain to these grieving parents how a human life is worth a tax-deductible fine," Hampton said. "If he thinks the people of Ontario will let him get away with this, he's wrong," he said in a news release.

"Explain to the Wheelan family why you cut a deal, Mr. Eves."

In May, 2001, when he took the job, Wheelan was a second-year economics student at Wilfrid Laurier University. He was hired for $10 an hour by Piccolo to pick up brush under the hydro lines outside Sault Ste. Marie. Piccolo's crew was hired by Great Lakes to cut down the thick trees that had grown close to the company's hydro lines.

Wheelan was given no training for the job, despite the fact that he was working under live electricity. On his second morning on the job, as Wheelan picked up brush, a tree that was being cut by the crew snapped the hydro line. The electricity arced on Wheelan's body and the crewmen remember him screaming three times, likely once for each jolt of power.

He spent months in the burn unit of Sunnybrook hospital and suffered from deep depression. But in the last few months of his life, Wheelan's family said he was making plans to move onward. A $500,000 "gift" from Great Lakes early this year helped him purchase almost half a hectare of land near his parents' home on Bass Lake.

His parents' victim-impact statement, read into court yesterday, said: "Lewis' beautiful person and precious life have been sacrificed. For what?"

Karl Sepkowski is a freelance writer

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