Risk Management Articles

Court Dismisses Claim for Negligent Firefighting


On May 5, 2014, a fire broke out at greenhouse facilities operated by Peace River Greenhouses Ltd. (“Peace River”). The volunteer fire department of the District of Taylor (the “District”) attended but was unable to extinguish the flames. The fire spread and substantially destroyed 11 greenhouses and other buildings on the property.

Pre-Trial Issues

Peace River commenced a lawsuit against the District, alleging negligence in the assessment of the fire and the techniques used to attempt to extinguish it.

The District was represented by Scott Twining and Lindsay Nilsson of Twining, Short & Haakonson, Barristers, one of the MIABC’s external law firms. They moved quickly to set a trial date and ready their defence for trial. They served an expert report, which stated that the District’s firefighting techniques were consistent with the standard practices of a volunteer fire department in the circumstances.

Despite receiving a number of extensions, Peace River failed to deliver its own expert report before the trial.

Evidence at Trial

At the opening of trial, Peace River sought to have an expert report admitted into evidence. This request was denied. The report was both late and deficient in several ways.

At trial, Peace River called three witnesses who described their observation of the fire. However, all three observed the fire from a distance and were unable to provide detail of the fire’s progress or the actions of the firefighters.

No Evidence Motion

After Peace River called all of its witnesses, the District brought a “no evidence motion”. On such a motion, the defendant asks the judge to find that the plaintiff has presented no evidence on an essential aspect of the case and, therefore, the entire lawsuit can be dismissed before the defendant has called any evidence.

The District’s lawyers argued that the no evidence motion was appropriate because Peace River had presented no expert evidence on the applicable standard of care of a volunteer fire department in a remote community.

The trial judge agreed with the District that the plaintiff should have provided expert evidence on the standard of care. Questions such as the classification of the fire and the appropriate steps for extinguishing the fire were technical issues that required specialized expertise.

For example, there were allegations that the firefighters made the wrong decisions regarding water supply and were negligent in failing to enter the greenhouse buildings. There was no way for the judge to assess these allegations without evidence as to what a reasonable volunteer firefighting department would have done. The judge would have also required evidence about the resources available to similar fire departments.

As a result, the judge dismissed the action and awarded costs to the District, writing: “Just because the defendant’s fire department did not extinguish the fire does not mean the defendant was guilty of negligence.”

Final Thoughts

This case underscores the importance of proper preparation for trial. In cases that involve technical issues, expert reports are often necessary.

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