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Owners of Quebec retirement home that burned, killing 32, sue town

Fire engulfs a seniors residence in L’Isle-Verte, Que., early Thursday, Jan.23, 2014. Many of the 30 people unaccounted for in a fatal fire in a seniors residence northeast of Quebec City had limited movement and were confined to wheelchairs and walkers, a local official said.

Francois Drouin/Infodimanche.com

The owners of the L'Isle-Verte, Que., retirement home where 32 people died in a catastrophic fire have launched the first of many lawsuits expected in the disaster's aftermath.

Roch Bernier, co-owner Irène Plante and their insurance company filed suit on Wednesday against the municipality of L'Isle-Verte, saying the town failed to respond properly to the fire on Jan. 23 in the 54-bed residence.

The suit says the town also failed to prepare a disaster response and evacuation plan, despite repeated requests over five years from Mr. Bernier to help draw one up.

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"The town's representatives had to improvise [on the night of the fire] and committed major and gross errors …the catastrophe could have been avoided, or at least avoided reaching such magnitude," the statement of claim says. "The errors could have been avoided with emergency and evacuation planning."

The two owners are seeking $1.5-million in damages, while insurance company Promutuel Rivière-du-Loup is seeking $2.3-million, for a total of $3.8-million.

The town has not filed a formal response to the lawsuit, and officials declined to comment on Wednesday. "The investigation is not complete and we have no comment at this time," said a receptionist at L'Isle-Verte town hall.

The lawsuit describes tensions between the municipality and its 16-member volunteer fire department, and between the town and neighbouring city of Rivière-du-Loup, which had the nearest fire service with full-time staff and equipment such as a ladder truck.

On the night of the fire, the town called in smaller municipalities for backup rather than the professional service in Rivière-du-Loup, 20 minutes away.

Witnesses said at the time the call would have made little difference. Only a portion of the wooden building had a sprinkler system. Driven by strong winds, the fire engulfed the wing where most of the deaths occurred within minutes, many witnesses said.

The statement of claim says only one fire truck arrived on the scene, about 15 minutes after the first alarm, and it did not have ladders or other equipment to face a major fire or evacuate residents. Witnesses described harrowing scenes of people trapped on balconies and behind windows as the building was consumed.

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Mr. Bernier and his lawyer, Guy Bertrand, declined to comment on Wednesday.

The claim says Mr. Bernier has suffered from post-traumatic stress and other psychological difficulties since the fire, while Ms. Plante has had suicidal thoughts and is under psychiatric care.

The insurance company says in the claim that the families of several victims have given notice they intend to sue. The deadline for filing such lawsuits in Quebec is three years afterward, which would be January, 2017.

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