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Lawsuit over botched B.C. rescue spooks search teams Add to ...

The volunteer search and rescue team in Golden, B.C., has suspended its operations in the mountainous, outdoor playground in the wake of a lawsuit brought by a Montreal man whose wife died last winter in the woods.

Gilles Blackburn, who watched his wife freeze to death after the pair got lost outside a Golden-area ski resort, launched a negligence suit against the RCMP, the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort and the Golden and District Search and Rescue Association.

The suit sent a chill through British Columbia's volunteer search and rescue groups, which thought they were covered by the government in the event of such an action. At least one other search and rescue group - in Kimberley, B.C. - joined Golden and suspended rescue operations. The Kimberley group resumed operations Monday morning.

"It's come to light that we don't have the coverage that we originally thought was provided by the province," said Joel Jackson, president of the Golden search and rescue group.

The Blackburn lawsuit, filed in early May, sent search and rescue teams across the province scrambling for legal advice about their insurance coverage.

Most groups assumed the province picked up the tab for the third-party liability coverage, Mr. Jackson said. They were wrong.

In fact, Mr. Jackson said the group was told last week that government-subsidized coverage only clicks in once rescuers respond to an emergency call.

The Blackburn suit revolves around the allegation that rescuers failed to initiate a search for Mr. Blackburn and his wife, Marie-Josée Fortin. In that case, no rescue was assigned for days, the suit alleges.

The couple was missing for about nine days while they were on a ski vacation to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. Ms. Fortin died after seven days; Mr. Blackburn was rescued after nine days. His suit claims that police, the rescue team and the resort all failed to act.

In Golden, it turned out the search and rescue team did have a private insurance policy, but Mr. Jackson said the team will suspend operations until the government clarifies its insurance coverage. Mr. Jackson said search and rescue societies also want to know what will happen to their private insurance premiums in the event they are found liable in a suit.

It turns out that about 50 per cent of British Columbia's search and rescue teams don't have private insurance policies.

The lawsuit and Golden's decision to suspend rescue operations shocked the umbrella group that represents British Columbia's volunteer search and rescue operations. Don Bindon, president of the B.C. Search and Rescue Association, said he's never heard of a search and rescue society being sued for negligence. And he hopes the government and search and rescue groups can resolve the impasse.

However, Steve Bachop, director of the Provincial Emergency Program, said the province is not in the business of providing third-party liability insurance and won't start now, even in the wake of the Blackburn lawsuit. He urged every search and rescue group to get private insurance coverage.

Peter Reid, president of Kimberley Search and Rescue Society, said he was shocked to learn that volunteer search and rescue teams weren't fully covered by the government for the dangerous work they do.

Search and rescue operations can often end badly, Mr. Reid said, and volunteer searchers need protection.

"There is so much pain and grief particularly when we're doing a body recovery rather than a rescue. Or when a rescue goes wrong - and they do go wrong."

According to Mr. Blackburn's lawsuit, the couple skied from the top of a ski lift within the limits of the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, and got lost after heading into an out-of-bounds area known as Canyon Creek.

About two days later, staff of Purcell Helicopter Skiing Ltd. saw Mr. Blackburn's SOS signals and alerted Kicking Horse, the suit alleges. The resort then tipped local search and rescue officials. After that, helicopter staff told the RCMP about SOS signals and the Mounties passed the information to the search and rescue team.

Monica Ahlstrom, president of Search and Rescue Alberta, said the situation in B.C. has implications in Alberta, where about a quarter of the volunteer organizations don't have insurance.

"It highlights a whole bunch of issues for volunteers who go out there and perform what is essentially a government service," she said.

The Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Canada offers insurance designed specifically for volunteer ground search teams, making this country one of the only countries in the world with such a system. But for smaller teams, it's sometimes cost prohibitive to sign onto the insurance program, which opens themselves up to liability.

With a report from Dawn Walton

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