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Quebec skier sues B.C. authorities for alleged failure to launch search

Last Updated: Friday, May 8, 2009

A Quebec man whose wife died after the couple became lost in the mountains near a B.C. ski resort for 10 days is now suing organizations that he alleges decided not to launch a search for him.

In a statement of claim filed in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, Gilles Blackburn, 51, alleges the RCMP failed to initiate a ground search soon enough after the couple became lost.

His wife, Marie-Josée Fortin, 44, died of severe hypothermia about seven days after the couple skied out of bounds while at the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in February.

Blackburn claims in the lawsuit that he suffers serious physical and psychological injuries due to the alleged negligence.

The claim alleges the Mounties knew, or should have known, someone was lost after SOS signs stamped in the snow by the couple were spotted at least twice by a heli-ski pilot and reported to authorities by the company.

In court documents, Blackburn also accuses the Golden District Search and Rescue Association as well as the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort of negligence for not initiating a search after the signals were reported. The suit also names the attorney general of B.C. and other defendants.

When the SOS signs were first spotted, the search and rescue team later said they did check with the resort to see if any guests were overdue or reported missing, but finding no evidence of missing persons, they decided not to send a team into the area and did not notify the RCMP.

When the SOS signals were first reported to the RCMP a few days later, officers said they checked with the search and rescue team, who told them the signs had already been investigated.

Blackburn was finally rescued after a group of returning heli-skiers once again reported seeing the SOS signals a third time and a rescue was finally launched by the RCMP.

The RCMP later admitted publicly that they made a mistake by not launching a search when they were first notified that SOS signs had been spotted in the snow. The force said it was conducting an internal review of the incident.

In an interview with CBC News after the rescue, Blackburn said it was his fault the couple made the decision to ski out of bounds, but he blamed the RCMP and other rescue agencies for the fact the ordeal went on so long.

The Kicking Horse Mountain Resort is located in the Purcell Mountains near Golden, B.C.

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It's a tough call............. I ran the HZ RCC for a few years and I can tell you there are a lot of stupid people out there that have to be rescued after they have knowingly made a dangerous decision.

There were cases where their stupidity led to death but I don't recall hearing about any lawsuits because of the lack of action by the Canadian Coast Guard or DND.

I did have to attend court for an enquiry (The crash of C-CFL) but there was no mention of lawsuits.

Again, this is a "story" and I think we would all like to know the infinite details before passing judgement as to what really transpired....I guess the over riding question is why the suit......financial gain is not going to bring his wife back to life......an enquiry maybe, but seeking financial compensation, (I guess he is,,,it is not mentioned in the article)??? dry.gif

I firmly believe that we, as Canadians, are moving in the direction of the US citizens, that being "lawsuit happy" . Upperdeck will be happy biggrin.giflaugh.gif

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I feel for the guy - it really hurts when you make a decision that results in pain or suffering for someone you love but this doesn't mean that he deserves financial compensation because someone else didn't react fast enough with help.

I guess it's possible that his motivation is to improve the process, we'll have to wait for the finale to see - I'm skeptical though. I'm willing to bet that he is somehow convinced (either convinced himself or been convinced by a family, friends or a greedy lawyer) that the system failed him and that someone else should be held accountable.

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Maybe it's not about the money. Maybe he just wants to sit in a room face to face with the person who saw his sos signals and didn't bother to investigate further.

He made a stupid decision to ski out of bounds. That doesn't warrant leaving him and his wife to freeze to death.

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Maybe it's not about the money.  Maybe he just wants to sit in a room face to face with the person who saw his sos signals and didn't bother to investigate further.

He made a stupid decision to ski out of bounds.  That doesn't warrant leaving him and his wife to freeze to death.

You need to re-read the article; the SOS was investigated further. After the SOS was found authorities checked the parking lots for vehicles that appeared to have been parked for an extended period (none found because these people had returned their rental car), local hotels where checked to see if any guests were unaccounted for (none found because these people had checked out of their hotel and didn't have reservations anywhere else). This guy and his wife couldn't have covered that fact that they were skiing in the wilderness any better if it was intentional.

I should add that I'm basing this on the media reports which is a fools game. I guess we'll have to wait and see what comes out in the trial/court proceedings - maybe these is something to it (still skeptical though).

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The rules in the west are that if you ski out of bounds you "DO SO AT YOUR OWN? RISK" everyone knows this. if you getr stuck YOU are responsible for all of the costs associated with your rescue. If you decide that the back country is for you then the least you can do is prepare. TELL SOMEONE so when you are overdue someone knows. Take a radio and and ELT as this will assist in rescue.

Yes it is tragic that he lost his wife but it was HIS decision to make. This is a baseless case.

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You need to re-read the article; the SOS was investigated further. After the SOS was found authorities checked the parking lots for vehicles that appeared to have been parked for an extended period (none found because these people had returned their rental car), local hotels where checked to see if any guests were unaccounted for (none found because these people had checked out of their hotel and didn't have reservations anywhere else). This guy and his wife couldn't have covered that fact that they were skiing in the wilderness any better if it was intentional.

I just reread the article. None of what you just posted was in the article. It just said they checked with the resort to see if anyone was missing. But in any case, whatever checking they did obviously wasn't enough, or his wife would still be alive.

The rules in the west are that if you ski out of bounds you "DO SO AT YOUR OWN? RISK" everyone knows this. if you getr stuck YOU are responsible for all of the costs associated with your rescue.

I absolutely agree. He should have been held responsible for all of the costs. But he should have been rescued when the first sos was spotted, not three days later after his wife died.

I don't know enough about the law to comment on this from a legal standpoint, but from a moral standpoint, I don't think it's acceptable to not have investigated this distress call further just because the people involved were stupid and reckless.

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Hola Jenn,

The story and different scenarios are carried in different papers...here is another...my underlining

When the SOS signs were first spotted, the search and rescue team later said they did check with the resort to see if any guests were overdue or reported missing, but finding no evidence of missing persons, they decided not to send a team into the area and did not notify the RCMP.

When the SOS signals were first reported to the RCMP a few days later, officers said they checked with the search and rescue team, who told them the signs had already been investigated.

As you can see, there was breakdown in communications, but based on just reading the above..the RCMP had no real reason to investigate further.

But as we all know...hindsight is 20-20....... a very sad case but I don't think a lawsuit is justified, an enquiry..yes.

PS..my middle son and his wife are avid skiiers, back country packers, rock climbers, ice climbers and often go into the deep back country but they ALWAYS carry 2 EPIRBs, cells, two handheld GPS and a mini survival kit. This particular sad incident is of this guys own making and I too think he is wanting to shift the blame elsewhere...a normal human reaction. dry.gif

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I just reread the article. None of what you just posted was in the article. It just said they checked with the resort to see if anyone was missing. But in any case, whatever checking they did obviously wasn't enough, or his wife would still be alive.

I absolutely agree. He should have been held responsible for all of the costs. But he should have been rescued when the first sos was spotted, not three days later after his wife died.

I don't know enough about the law to comment on this from a legal standpoint, but from a moral standpoint, I don't think it's acceptable to not have investigated this distress call further just because the people involved were stupid and reckless.

Oh, sorry, I guess those details were in a different article - I've read several.

I have to comment on this statement you made;

"But in any case, whatever checking they did obviously wasn't enough, or his wife would still be alive.'

The fact that the wife died does not prove that the search was insufficient - to think this is a logical error. The search, IMO, was appropriate to the situation; they checked the parking lot for cars that had been parked in the same place for an extended period of time, they checked the hotels for missing or overdue guests and they also checked with the resort to see if any rental equipment was overdue - all this on the basis of a vague, nondescript SOS stamped in the snow. What would have the SAR team do, and how many searchers would you send out on the strength of this evidence, 10, 100, 1000? How long should they search, a day, a week, a month? Now, if they had left an itinerary or some kind of clue for searchers and they didn't start a search he might have a reason to be angry or to seek redress.

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Guest rattler

Perhaps another example of the change in attitude that believes that society has to protect us from ourselves.

e.g. Adult Helmet Laws etc.

- Free rescue when you insist in being in an off limits area.

- Free rescue when you insist on feeding the bears wink.gif

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Perhaps another example of the change in attitude that believes that society has to protect us from ourselves.

e.g. Adult Helmet Laws etc.

- Free rescue when you insist in being in an off limits area.

- Free resuce when you insist on feeding the bears wink.gif

I don't actually have a problem with helmet laws, seatbelt laws etc. People are stupid and I don't want to have to pay for their stupidity so any law that forces "common sense" is OK with me. I would gladly support a law that mandates posting a "Search and Rescue" bond for any out-of-limits outdoor activity. The end result of a law like this would be to make carrying a EPIRB and leaving a trip itinerary cheaper than paying the bond - got no problem with people exploring the great outdoors as long as they do so on their own dime.

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What if this wasn't someone who knowingly went out of bounds? If this had been someone who went for a walk and got lost, or disorientated, or broke a leg, would it still be okay to not go out to investigate the sos signal?

I agree with Kip, if not a lawsuit, then at least an enquiry, to find out why somebody who needed help slipped through the cracks of the existing search and rescue system.

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If this had been someone who went for a walk and got lost, or disorientated, or broke a leg, would it still be okay to not go out to investigate the sos signal?

Yes, you have a valid point but I think the problem was that the Rescue Team "assumed" there was not a problem after their little investigation and when queried by the RCMP told them there was no problem so I really don't think the RCMP did anything wrong...

In this case a more thorough investigation should have been done by the Rescue Team...IMO.

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Jennifer,

Firstly, it is a tragedy that his wife died. Even more so that help could have been available and she would have survived.

But in any case, whatever checking they did obviously wasn't enough, or his wife would still be alive.

From what I read in the press, the couple was not "missing" or "overdue", so who would search and rescue start looking for?

But he should have been rescued when the first sos was spotted, not three days later after his wife died.

Yes, he should have been rescued when the first SOS was spotted.

What was different on the first two spottings compared to the final one?

The third time he was in the vicinity of the SOS signals and was seen from the air.

There is no indication he was near enough and moving enough to make himself observable to the SOS spotter(s).

As Kip said above, if someone is intent on skiing off the beaten track, or out of bounds, there is technology available at a reasonable price to request help and identify one's location within a few meters. Some of this technology is satellite based and is not restricted to CELL coverage.

Henry

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Did anyone or any organization have a legal obligation to launch a search? I'm not sure about the RCMP but volunteer groups ahould have no such obligation.

When I lived in Alberta in the 1970s I spent a lot of time in the mountains, week- long hikes in the summer, day-long cross country ski trips in the winter. We always let someone know where we were going and when we planned to return. While this is certainly a tragic case the couple have only themselves to blame. I suspect there was some outside pressure to file this suit.

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An unfortunate combination of errors-yes.

Re not acting on the SOS signals: I'm not familiar with that area but there are so very many backcountry areas in BC now that are accessed by high performance go-anywhere skidoos. Their operators leave many tracks and damage and it would not be unheard of for them to leave a "prank" signal. That may have been a factor in the response decisions.

Respect the mountains please.

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Re not acting on the SOS signals: I'm not familiar with that area but there are so very many backcountry areas in BC now that are accessed by high performance go-anywhere skidoos. Their operators leave many tracks and damage and it would not be unheard of for them to leave a "prank" signal. That may have been a factor in the response decisions.

Respect the mountains please.

B***S**T!!!!

There is NO reasonable explanation not to react to SOS signals of ANY kind!!!!

If found to be a prank, sue the bastards... Tax money at work here!

But you can't disregard an SOS signal for fear of it being illegetimate (sp?) and conducting further investigation prior to acting on it!

The first thing I was thought during my SAR courses at the CQFA was how to signal a desperate situation... Exactly the way those people did in the snow out there!

If their story holds true, I'm all for blaming the authorities who disregarded it to "investigate" further...

Respect the PEOPLE please!

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But you can't disregard an SOS signal for fear of it being illegetimate (sp?) and conducting further investigation prior to acting on it!

The first thing I was thought during my SAR courses at the CQFA was how to signal a desperate situation... Exactly the way those people did in the snow out there!

If their story holds true, I'm all for blaming the authorities who disregarded it to "investigate" further...

Respect the PEOPLE please!

Gumbi;

Why do people keep saying that the SOS wasn't investigated? huh.gif

It. was. investigated. IMO, the response was entirely appropriate. If you don't think so that's fine, we can disagree about that but at least acknowledge the fact that some level of search was done.

"Searches" range from nothing- "feet up on the desk drinking coffee" all the way to "Call the Hercs, get some helicopters and mobilize the army". It's a continuum. You seem to be saying that no level of search is too much but you are doing this with the knowledge that someone was actually in need. This is a classic mistake for an investigator to make; to pass assessment on the decisions made with the benefit of having already seen the outcome.

My prediction for the lawsuit is this; no money for Mr. Fortin. I'm pretty sure that the efforts made will be shown to be reasonable and appropriate for the situation. The search organizations and the RCMP will revise their procedures to improve the information flow and the "bar" for deciding when to actually conduct a physical search will be lowered. Mr. Fortin will hold a news conference claiming a great victory and will state that he's happy with the outcome since this will prevent any other "innocent victim" from having to endure the same hardship. The biggest benefit to society as a whole will come from the publicity of the court proceedings - EPIRB sales will triple next winter.

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Mr. Fortin will hold a news conference claiming a great victory and will state that he's happy with the outcome since this will prevent any other "innocent victim" from having to endure the same hardship. The biggest benefit to society as a whole will come from the publicity of the court proceedings - EPIRB sales will triple next winter.

And then too will the lawyers be happy. This, like so many other frivolous cases, has been driven by lawyers.

There must be a better way to achieve Justice than the antagonistic approach we have to the Law, i.e. "My lawyer says I'm 100% right; his lawyer says he's 100% right."

The only thing this attitude brings to a system of Justice is a forced compromise where seldomly anyone is happy with the outcome. Forced compromises are what the courts want, Justice be dammed.

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Boy! No shortage of "opinions" are there? And some of those opinions are-----hmmmm----questionable?

One of the benefits of a free and democratic society is access to the justice system. Individually, you may not necessarily agree with the disposition in a particular case (remember the outcry over criminal negligence charges against a pilot?) but I'm fairly confident that you all agree with the principle of access. Keep in mind that in our jurisdiction, the unsuccessful litigant bears the obligation of costs---it's NOT a "free ride".

So---in order for this lawsuit to result in an award in favour of the Plaintiffs, they must first establish the existence of a "duty of care" owed to them. If such a duty exists, they must prove a breach of that duty and then they must prove (on a balance of probabilities) that such breach caused them damage.

Those are a LOT of hurdles which must be overcome before one needs to concern themselves with "greedy lawyers" and "money-hungry" litigants.

By the way, Kip......once upon a time,my job was to DEFEND against those "outrageous and wholly devoid of merit" claims.

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Keep in mind that in our jurisdiction, the unsuccessful litigant bears the obligation of costs---it's NOT a "free ride".

Really, then Pro Bono is a myth ?? tongue.gif

By the way, Kip......once upon a time,my job was to DEFEND against those "outrageous and wholly devoid of merit" claims.

Why'd you give it up ? More $$ on the other side?? laugh.gif

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I think we can all agree that his wife's loss was at once tragic and sadly preventable through better decision making on his part. And we all agree that more could have been done in response to the SOS. But to dismiss his right to redress is pretty unfair, IMO. I saw an interview with him shortly after his rescue, and he was pretty upset with himself for not having planned better. But his acceptance of his own errors doesn't mean he isn't entitled to know if more should have been done. If I were his lawyer, I would be looking at the operating standards and best practices of those who are in the mountain search and rescue business. If they can prove that the routine best practice includes more than the search that was actually performed, then they have a case. Otherwise, the verdict will fall in favour of the defendants.

To put it another way, if you neglected to ensure that your child was buckled in, and they were killed in a car accident that was caused by someone else's negligence, would you lose all rights to file a claim against the other party?

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Here's a section of the article as written in The Province:

One lawsuit was filed by Blackburn and his teenage son and daughter, seeking damages for the loss of their wife and mother. {I wonder if the children also named their father as a defendant} The other, filed by Blackburn alone, seeks damages for his physical and psychological injuries.

The statement of claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court says that on or about Feb. 17, Purcell Helicopter Skiing Ltd. reported seeing the signals to the staff of the resort.

On the same day, the staff notified search-and-rescue officials in Golden and four days later, Purcell notified the RCMP that the signals had been spotted in Canyon Creek and the RCMP reported the sighting to search and rescue, says the lawsuit

The RCMP, search and rescue and the the resort are all named as defendants.

They "all negligently failed to initiate or conduct a search for the plaintiff or Ms. Fortin or otherwise properly investigate the source and significance of the SOS signals," says the lawsuit.

The suit accuses Kicking Horse of not posting signs to warn there is no exit from Canyon Creek, the out-of-bounds area where Blackburn and Fortin got lost.

The warning signs posted at the resort's edge are standard for ski resorts in Western Canada, resort spokesman Jordan Petrovics said.

"To the best of my knowledge, they don't get into complete specifics, because we can't encourage people to go into any specific area once they leave our controlled recreation area," he said, declining to comment further on the lawsuit.

Blackburn says he suffered permanent loss of parts of both feet, nervous shock, depression, nightmares and anxiety and continues to undergo medical care and treatment. His lawyer said it interferes with his ability to work as a contractor.

He's seeking general, special and punitive damages.

"I think he is doing the best he can," Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said Friday. "He is not able to walk for any lengthy distances."

She said Blackburn is suing, in part, to ensure this tragedy never happens again.

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