My perspective - Getting burned


By Kate Jackman-Atkinson

Neepawa Banner & Press

Last week, volunteer firefighters in The Pas received an unwelcome surprise, six of them, along with the Town of the The Pas, were named as defendants in a lawsuit alleging negligence. It’s not just that the firefighters were named in the suit that’s troubling, it’s the fact that the case is being brought against them by Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries (MLL).

On July 7, 2017, the volunteer fire department in the The Pas was called to a fire at the Town Centre Hotel. At the time, RCMP called the fire suspicious and CBC reports indicated that the fire began when someone set fire to a recycling bin at the back of the building. Firefighters responded to that 2:30 a.m. call and extinguished the fire, leaving at 4:30 a.m.. However, shortly after, they were called back to another fire at the hotel, reported to have started in the grass beside the building. This second fire resulted in the complete destruction of the 105-year-old building.

On March 12 of this year, Leslie Robertson, the hotel’s owner, filed a suit with the Court of Queen’s Bench seeking special damages, general damages, costs and interest. Robertson is alleging that the Town and the individual firefighters were negligent in fighting the fire. He says that in addition to the loss of the building, lost in the fire were three days’ worth of undeposited money and the contents of an ATM. He’s pegging his total loss at $2 million. MLL has joined this suit, seeking damages for the VLT machines destroyed in the blaze, which were worth about $149,600. However, the corporation is claiming that the suit was brought forward by their insurance company, not them.

The suit alleges that the second fire was a result of a rekindling of the first fire, which the fire department failed to properly extinguish before leaving the scene. When the second fire started, the sprinkler and alarm systems in the building hadn’t been reactivated following the first fire. Previous reporting from the Winnipeg Free Press said that at the time of the blaze, The Pas had no fire chief and the acting chief was taking time off.

I haven’t seen an official report on the incident and I won’t question whether the second fire was a rekindling of the first one, or an arsonist’s second attempt. I don’t know enough about protocol when it comes to securing a site following a fire to judge the department’s actions. I don’t take issue with the building owner seeking legal recourse against the Town and its fire department for alleged deficiencies in performing their duties.

I do take issue with the firefighters being personally named in the case.

According to their most recent annual report, in 2018, MLL’s total revenue was $1.4 billion and its net income was $610 million. There is no way it doesn’t look like bad form for such a large corporation to go after individual volunteer firefighters over what is a rounding error to the corporation, even if they didn’t personally bring the suit forward.

Many communities struggle to find volunteer firefighters and for some, responding to a call means not only risking their lives, but also giving up higher paying income at their full time jobs. Without these individuals, we would have no protection beyond a bucket brigade of friends and neighbours. We don’t need anything else that discourages someone from joining a department.

The mayor of The Pas has said that the firefighters will be covered under the Town’s insurance policy, but that doesn’t save them from the stress of being named in the suit. Proving that the individual firefighters were grossly negligent is a pretty high threshold to meet, there’s very little to be gained by including them in the suit.