The lawyer for a Quebec man who barely survived being lost for nine days in the B.C. backcountry and watched his wife die in the ordeal says she’s surprised by the level of animosity being thrust toward her client. A Google search for Gilles Blackburn can turn up images in which he’s depicted as a clown, and postings in which he’s called a wide assortment of names and urged never to come back to B.C.
The venomous comments follow Blackburn’s decision to sue RCMP, the province, a resort and the search and rescue squad in Golden, B.C., alleging they were negligent in not responding to the SOS signals he stamped in the snow begging for help last February.
The lawsuit has caused the Golden search and rescue team to shut down and has sent teams across the country scrambling to determine whether they have insurance against such legal action.
But Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, Blackburn’s lawyer, says the public appears to have lost sight of who the victim is in this case.
“I think it’s important that people be reminded who’s being sued here and why,” Wilhelm-Morden said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“Golden Search and Rescue and the RCMP heard (Blackburn and wife Marie Josee-Fortin’s) cries for help and they did nothing.”
Golden and District Search and Rescue announced it was suspending its services last week after Blackburn filed two lawsuits against it, one on his own behalf, one for his children.
Blackburn is seeking damages for negligence after he and his wife became lost while skiing from the top of a lift within the resort on Feb. 15.
Fortin died of hypothermia seven days into the ordeal.
When Blackburn filed the legal action, he said he wanted to make sure no one was ever again left stranded in the woods without help.
But, in an ironic twist, search and rescue teams throughout B.C. are now considering shutting down because of the lawsuit and others across Canada are scrambling to re-examine their insurance policies.
Nonetheless, Wilhelm-Morden says she doesn’t believe the lawsuit and the potential closures will put more outdoor enthusiasts at risk. In fact, she says some good could come out of the ordeal.
“The RCMP are the people who are charged with finding lost people. The RCMP are the ones who initiate and authorize searches,” Wilhelm-Morden said.
“When search and rescue teams are available, they use search and rescue teams, amongst other people. If search and rescue teams aren’t available, they will use other people. Lost people aren’t going to stay lost.”
The president of the Search and Rescue Volunteers Association of Canada is among those who has said the lawsuit could have a strong ripple effect across the country, forcing 15,000 volunteers to reconsider if they want to risk everything they own, but Wilhelm-Morden said that’s not likely to happen.
“If it comes to light . . . that there are other problems – not just with the Golden search and rescue but with other search and rescue organizations in the province – if those problems are fixed as a result of these lawsuits, then that’s a good thing for everybody,” she said.
When asked if the court action might force search and rescue teams to reconsider their volunteer work, Wilhelm-Morden said, “That’s what liability insurance is for.”
Wilhelm-Morden also stressed the difference between negligence and simply making a mistake.
“It’s not a case of just making a mistake. Mistakes happen. There has to be negligence before anybody will be responsible at law.”
A message left for a member of the Golden search and rescue team was not returned.
In B.C., the provincial government covers volunteers for liability, but the search and rescue societies are responsible for getting their own coverage.
The Golden team has expressed concerns about the coverage gaps and the fact that the province’s coverage kicks in only when searchers are called in to duty and not if a proper search isn’t launched.
The search and rescue team in Kimberley, B.C., followed Golden’s lead by suspending its services for almost a week before eventually returning to duty. Cranbrook and Fernie are considering pulling the plug, while Kamloops has expressed its concern about the legal action.
Vernon volunteers have given the provincial government 60 days to protect rescuers from potential lawsuits. If it fails to follow through, the Vernon team says it will completely withdraw its services.
Tim Jones with Vancouver’s North Shore Search and Rescue said his team and four of the province’s busiest groups in Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton, and Lions Bay met this week and decided to maintain normal operations.
“Until the province provides search and rescue services, we’re not going to withdraw it. That’s not why we joined,” Jones said.
“We felt that taking the high road and being professional in the way we address this issue is the way to do it, not by withdrawing services.”
Recognizing those words may have come across as a bit of a swipe, Jones detailed the great work the Golden search and rescue team has done in the past three decades.
He said anybody can make a mistake and his team isn’t abandoning the Golden unit after the years of work they’ve provided in dangerous terrain.
Jones called the insurance issue an important one for all teams and said any gaps in coverage need to be immediately addressed.
He has been in contact with representatives of B.C.’s Provincial Emergency Program and described the conversation as “great,” adding that the province is listening to all concerns.
Jones said his team did an immediate and complete review following the Golden incident, suggesting legal action isn’t necessary to invoke changes in protocol.
“Hopefully, there’s a lot we can learn from this,” he said.
The Canadian Press