TORONTO — A Toronto construction manager convicted in a 2009 scaffolding collapse that left four members of his crew dead was sentenced to three and a half years behind bars Monday.
Vadim Kazenelson was found guilty last June on four counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm.
The judge presiding over the case found the 40-year-old was aware that protections against falls were not in place, but still allowed his workers to board a swing stage that broke in half, causing five workers to plummet to the ground. Only one of them survived.
Justice Ian MacDonnell said the sentence he imposed was proportionate to the gravity of Kazenelson’s offences.
“The seriousness of the offences committed by Mr. Kazenelson and their consequences cannot be doubted,” he said. “A significant term of imprisonment is necessary to reflect the terrible consequences.”
Notwithstanding his actions on the day of the scaffolding collapse, MacDonnell said Kazenelson was “unquestionably a man of good character.” But his breach of duty that day was more than a momentary lapse, MacDonnell said, noting that he had to deliver a sentence that would deter others from making the same errors.
Kazenelson has apologized for his role in the collapse and said he lives with the pain of what happened every day.
He was led away in handcuffs following his sentencing but was released on bail Monday afternoon as his lawyer appeals the case.
“We respectfully believe that the trial judge, Justice MacDonnell, made errors,” said Kazenelson’s lawyer Lou Strezos. “We say he misapprehended evidence and failed to consider evidence that pointed in a different direction.”
But Crown prosecutor Rochelle Direnfeld called MacDonnell’s sentence “absolutely just.”
“It’s precedent-setting, no doubt,” she said, explaining that it was the first time such a decision had been delivered under a section of the criminal code established in 2004 that imposes a legal duty on supervisors to take reasonable steps to prevent their workers from being harmed.
MacDonnell’s sentence was also lauded by certain labour groups.
“This is a victory,” said Sylvia Boyce of the United Steelworkers. “Employers have an obligation and a duty to protect the health and safety of workers, and I think this right now certainly will open up their eyes, make it a societal change.”
The Ontario Federation of Labour added that Kazenelson’s case sent a strong message.
“Those men did not need to lose their lives,” said president Chris Buckley. “It’s the first time an employer is going to jail for the death of a worker and it’s been classed as a criminal offence.”
On the day when the scaffolding collapse occurred — Christmas Eve 2009 — six workers who were rushing to meet a construction deadline to repair balconies got onto a swing stage they had been using to go up and down the outside of a building, but the stage only had two safety lifelines, court heard.
At that point, Kazenelson, who had arrived partway through, handed tools to the workers on the stage from a 13th floor balcony, his trial heard.
Kazenelson asked the site foreman, who was present, about the lifelines at one point, but was told by him not to worry and no more was said, court heard.
“In a sense, he inherited a problem that was created by his foreman,” MacDonnell acknowledged, before noting that Kazenelson nonetheless did not insist that safety measures be taken once he became aware of the situation.
“Mr. Kazenelson adverted to the risk, weighed it against (construction company) Metron’s interest to keep the work going and decided to take a chance.”
The trial heard that Kazenelson managed to hold onto a balcony when the swing stage suddenly split in two.
Alesandrs Bondarevs, Aleksey Blumberg, Vladamir Korostin and foreman Fayzullo Fazilov fell to their deaths, while Dilshod Marupov survived the fall with fractures to his spine and ribs.
The men ranged from 21 to 40 years old and were from Latvia, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.
Only one worker, who was the sole person properly secured to a lifeline, was left suspended in mid-air until Kazenelson hauled him up onto a balcony, court heard.