SARs make changes after backcountry tragedy and lawsuit 

Lawsuit settled with Golden organization, litigation continues with RCMP

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It took the tragic death of skier Marie Fortin, and a subsequent lawsuit, to shine the spotlight on weaknesses in B.C.'s search and rescue organizations.

The busiest organization in the country, responding to more than 1,000 calls a year, BCSAR was in a crisis three years ago as one of its groups faced down its first lawsuit, forcing everyone to ask the gut-wrenching question: when are volunteers responsible for someone who has knowingly gone into the backcountry without being properly prepared?

The lawsuit, initiated by Fortin's husband Gilles Blackburn, against Golden and District Search and Rescue (GADSAR), was settled this month, but the ramifications of the legal action have had both positive and negative effects on this critical service.

While searchers are covered by insurance more fully than before, some are still thinking twice about their exposure and their responsibilities.

"It made us certainly more conscious of understanding our position," said Dave Steers, manager at Pemberton District SAR.

"We've had to look at everything we were doing and see if we're exposed in any way."

That includes not just massive search efforts into the backcountry but innocuous, friendly community events, that search and rescue volunteers would often lend a helping hand to without a second thought.

"Now, not so much," said Steers. "If they can't name us in their insurance, we really are not in a position to be able to help them out any more. It's really sad."

When Blackburn filed a lawsuit three years ago against GADSAR it sent shockwaves through the 85 teams in the province, triggering one of the biggest crises of Search and Rescue's long history and exposing an insurance failing.

While the volunteers were protected as individuals, some of the groups themselves were not protected as societies. Golden was, so too was Whistler and Pemberton. But some of the smaller groups, and by extension the volunteers, were exposed. They didn't carry liability insurance.

When SAR groups began to suspend or limit operations to avoid exposure to lawsuits, the province stepped up to the plate to cover the insurance for this critical operation — one that can't be readily replaced.

"There was an ongoing dialogue in order to have that happen," said Don Bindon, president of BCSAR, of the situation pre-lawsuit. "We were successful after that. I don't draw a direct conclusion but I can't believe that this lawsuit didn't help."

He remembers the crisis well.

"It motivated us to work even harder to make sure that this policy was available right across the province."

Last year the B.C. government announced it would provide the liability insurance coverage for SAR groups going forward at a cost of $180,000 per year.

The litigation is now over for GADSAR after an out of court settlement this month, the details of which will likely never be known. Attempts to reach GADSAR before press time Wednesday were not successful. Blackburn also resolved his case with Kicking Horse Mountain Resort with no damages paid. The legal action is ongoing with the RCMP.

Blackburn and Fortin skied out of bounds in February 2009 and simply got lost. They stamped SOS signs into the snow, signs that were seen and reported, but no search was ever initiated.

Fortin died of hypothermia after seven days, Blackburn was found two days later.

Brad Sills, manager of Whistler SAR, has seen how split second decisions like Blackburn and Fortin's can have terrible consequences.

This case, he said, serves as a refocus for all volunteers; this is a very complex life and death business they're in and there are 1,000 little details that must be communicated to partners. Failure to do so can lead to a tragic outcome.

He said: "We'll never know what the percentage culpability was because it didn't go to trial. All we know was that there was a settlement."


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