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Company owner pleads guilty in death of construction worker

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The owner of a small Manitoba construction company must pay nearly $100,000 in penalties after a Victoria Beach cottage collapsed on one of his workers, tragically killing him.

Michael Mooney, a 23-year-old apprentice carpenter, was killed at an RAE Construction job site at a lakefront cottage at Wanasing Beach on June 20, 2011.

Mooney’s boss and friend, Ray Harms, 54, pleaded guilty Tuesday under the Workplace Safety and Health Act to failing to ensure the safety, health and welfare of workers.

Judge Tracey Lord agreed to a recommendation from Crown and defence lawyers to fine Harms $75,000 and impose a victim fine surcharge of $18,750.

Mooney was with Harms and two others working to jack up a cottage that was being threatened by high lake waters and lakefront flooding, the Crown told court.

After working for hours beneath the cottage to raise its support beams by 22 inches, an inch at a time, it collapsed without warning, court heard.

Mooney was pinned under the house and efforts by Harms and the other crew members to get him out failed.

"Boom — the building just went down. It went down so fast I didn’t hear any sound," a neighbour outside at the time told provincial workplace-safety investigators.

"It just went down in a cloud of dust," the man said. "It was just unbelievable how quickly it happened."

Medics arrived on scene within four minutes and rushed Mooney to hospital but he couldn’t be saved.

An engineer who surveyed the site after the cottage collapsed noted soil conditions likely played a role in what happened, as "fine silting sand" was found.

One of the concrete support pads for the cottage on the lakefront was sinking and likely caused the centre of gravity of the cottage — which was built on a slope — to suddenly shift, court heard.

There were no provisions in law for Harms, who has decades of construction experience, to do soil testing prior to undergoing the lift operation, Lord heard.

However, there was an "absence of due diligence," prosecutor Tim Chudy said.

"It all could have been prevented with additional diligence and additional foresight," said Chudy.

Mooney’s family was devastated by the death.

His parents and other relatives personally read emotional, powerful victim impact statements in court describing how his loss continues to affect them deeply.

"It’s too big, and it’s too bad and it’s hurtful," Mooney’s father, Pat Mooney, told Lord.

"Our lives have been torn to shreds," he said. "… And here we sit in this hell on earth watching a dollar value put on it all."

Harms has no record of prior violations of workplace-safety laws.

He's also been left traumatized by what happened, lawyer Maria Grande said.

He can no longer work in confined spaces and will no longer take on projects where lifting needs to be done, she said.

"He has told me personally, it should have been him and not Mike," Grande said. "This was a tragic accident. Mr. Harms is truly sorry."

Harms and his wife echoed those words directly to Mooney’s relatives in court.

"I’m truly, truly sorry," Harms told them.

He plans to refinance his home to pay the fine, surcharge and costs, Lord was told.


Updated on Tuesday, July 15, 2014 at 9:32 PM CDT: Corrects Harms' age.

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