An Airdrie company is being sued for more than $18 million USD ($23 million CAD) by a former employee who was jailed while working for the firm's African branch in 2015.
According to court documents filed through the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench from 2017 to 2020, Irish native Ronan O’Mhaoinigh is seeking millions in damages in a civil action against United Safety International Ltd. (USIL), an Airdrie-based company that supplies safety equipment and safety-related services to oil and gas companies around the world. The National Post first reported details of the lawsuit in December 2020.
USIL, which has its western hemisphere headquarters in Airdrie's East Lake Industrial Park, was founded in 1987. The company provides various industrial safety services related to the oil and gas sector.
According to O’Mhaoinigh’s statement of claim against USIL, filed in May 2017, the company employed O’Mhaoinigh in August 2014 as an account manager. His role was to act as USIL’s sales representative in the city of Pointe Noire, in the Democratic Republic of Congo – a country O’Mhaoinigh had been living in for two years with his wife, who is a native of the country.
O’Mhaoinigh declined an interview request. However, his statement of claim alleges he was imprisoned in February 2015 after being wrongfully accused of stealing $2 million from Marc Emanuelli – a USIL agent who also had ties to the Congolese government and president, Denis Sassou Nguesso.
In his statement of claim, O’Mhaoinigh alleges Canada’s Immigration Service recognizes Nguesso and members of his family as a criminal organization. Emanuelli, according to O’Mhaoinigh's statement, was an alleged intermediary for Nguesso's regime.
“The defendant knew or ought to have known that its Congo-based employees were at risk of being victimized by corrupt Congo officials,” the statement of claim reads.
The lawsuit alleges Emanuelli prosecuted a criminal complaint against O’Mhaoinigh to Pointe Noire's Magistrate of the Court of Appeal in February 2015 for diverting $2 million from Emanuelli’s account into his own account. The prosecution came only a few weeks after Emanuelli’s contract with USIL had been formally terminated, according to the statement of claim, and Emanuelli claimed he was owed unpaid fees by the company.
O’Mhaoinigh went on to spend the next two months in a Congolese jail, without trial.
“He endured horrific conditions, including torture, lack of food or water for extended periods of time, violence or the threat of violence, unsanitary living conditions with raw sewage, witnessing violence suffered by other inmates and witnessing the disappearance of other inmates,” the statement of claim reads.
O’Mhaoinigh alleges USIL was indirectly responsible for his imprisonment, due to the company’s business relationship with Emanuelli. He claims USIL had contracted the French-Lebanese businessman to use his political contacts to create and maintain business opportunities for the company’s Congolese operations.
After he was accused of stealing money from Emanuelli, O’Mhaoinigh alleges USIL then “broke its promise” by failing to arrange adequate legal representation for him before his summoning to the Pointe Noire Magistrate.
After spending two months in prison, O’Mhaoinigh was released on bail conditions in April 2015. He argues his release was aided by USIL agreeing to pay Emanuelli some or all of the money the agent claimed he was owed.
O’Mhaoinigh’s statement of claim alleges his release came with strict conditions, including an obligation to remain in Pointe Noire and relinquish possession of his passport to the Congolese court. The criminal charges against him remained in place, pending trial.
His statement claims his wife and family members later contacted USIL’s chief administrative officer, Lee Whittaker, who “promised to provide the necessary resources to absolve Ronan of the criminal charges.”
However, O’Mhaoinigh’s suit alleges USIL “wished for the plaintiffs to pursue the dismissal of charges discreetly,” using the company’s contacts with the Nguesso family. After USIL learned O’Mhaoingh intended to pursue justice through Congo’s legal system, the Airdrie company “refused to reimburse the plaintiffs for their legal expenses and did not cooperate with them in executing their legal strategy,” according to O'Mhaoinigh's claim.
“Furthermore, the defendant informed members or associates of the Nguesso criminal organization about the matter, which led to the aforementioned Magistrate to re-assert [its] influence into the matter,” it reads.
The Irish native alleges USIL terminated his employment in July 2016 “as a result of his disabilities, leaving him without income or benefits.” His statement of claim argues he and his wife fled Congo in August that year, eventually settling in Ireland, where they still live today.
As a result of his experience in prison, O’Mhaoinigh claimed he suffered physical injuries and post-traumatic stress. His statement of claim alleges he remained “deeply traumatized” and suffered “extreme mental distress” in the years afterward.
His legal action also states he and his wife still have assets, friends and family in Congo, but cannot return to the country because O’Mhaoinigh would be arrested and tried on outstanding charges.
Finally, the statement of claim alleges USIL “made false allegations” about O’Mhaoinigh’s conduct, including an accusation he had bribed a Congolese police officer and interfered in the company’s efforts to resolve the situation.
USIL filed its statement of defence in May 2018, according to court documents. The company denies all of the allegations against it, arguing USIL “went above and beyond any and all duties or obligations which it may have owed” O’Mhaoinigh.
“United Safety was not aware of Emanuelli’s alleged business ties, relationships or associations with any third-parties, such as his alleged connection to the alleged Nguesso criminal organization or whether such an organization even exists,” the statement of defence reads.
The company also questions whether O’Mhaoinigh endured the conditions described in his affidavits about the prison and claims to have “worked tirelessly and at great expense to support and free Ronan from detention.” These measures included providing O’Mhaoinigh’s wife money while he was in jail and paying for his Congolese counsel to personally appear multiple times before the Magistrate to help secure his release.
“United Safety states that Ronan was freed from detention solely due to United Safety’s intervention on his behalf, not as a result of the efforts of Ronan’s personal Congolese legal counsel – which was paid for by United Safety – or his family,” the statement of defence reads.
“Further, United Safety specifically denies that Ronan was released from the detention center because it paid Emanuelli some or all of the money that he improperly claimed in the civil claim.”
USIL also stated O’Mhaoinigh’s eventual termination from the company was due to the declining state of the global oil and gas sector, as well as the company’s winding down of its business in Congo.
More than three years after the initial statement of claim was filed, the lawsuit remains unresolved. In January 2020, USIL filed an application for an order to grant permission to two former and one current USIL employee witnesses to be questioned under video examination. In response, O’Mhaoinigh filed a motion for a summary judgment and for the dismissal of the application in August 2020.
According to the National Post’s report on the matter, a legal official called a “master” ruled in December 2020 against O’Mhaoinigh’s request for a summary judgment based on written submissions, saying the dispute would have to be settled at trial.
None of the allegations have been proven in court. USIL's chief financial officer, Daryl Helmer, said the company is not able to comment on the matter, due to its legal nature.