This Is Why We Cannot Have Nice Things

Question: If one is lost in the snow-covered wilderness that is the Canadian Rocky Mountains, is it better to have:

A. A small organization of local volunteers willing to conduct dangerous search and rescue operations?

B. No search and rescue at all?

I'd be willing to bet that each and every person who has ever been saved by the Golden and District Search and Rescue Society would choose A.

However Gilles Blackburn of Quebec, who got lost by going off trail at a ski resort last February, and whom the Society was unable to locate, evidently believes that since the Society was unable to rescue him, it shouldn't be able to rescue anyone else either.

Quebec skier Gilles Blackburn filed two lawsuits last month claiming negligence and seeking damages from Golden and District Search and Rescue, RCMP, and the owners of Kicking Horse Resort after he and his wife became lost in the backcountry when they were skiing out of bounds, and she died.

Blackburn says the groups failed to heed his SOS messages.

Marie-Josee Fortin died of chronic hypothermia two days before a passing helicopter saved her husband.

The Golden District Search and Rescue Society appears to be an ad hoc, unpaid organization, like a volunteer fire department in a rural area.  It operates by means of raffles and fundraisers.  GSAR evidently does have insurance, but it's shut down for the time being.  According to Canadian media, many similar organizations in rural or even arctic Canada are considering shutting down in response to the suit, because they can't afford insurance.

Search and Rescue volunteers ready to quit over lawsuits.

Lawsuit concerns halt East Kootenay rescue teams.

BC search-and-rescue volunteers consider quitting after lost skier files suit.

Of course, not a drop of virtual ink is spilled in any of these stories concerning the inherent riskiness of skiing in a place so remote that it might as well be the wilds of Daghestan.  Among those risks are broken limbs, being eaten by bears, and yes, getting lost because you wandered off the trail into an almost polar wilderness.

In the United States (with a few noteworthy exceptions), the law shields "Good Samaritans" from liability for negligently rendered, but well-meant aid to those in jeopardy.  After all, if we impose tort liability on the guy who tries to remove someone from a burning car, or renders CPR to a heart attack victim, because he didn't perform as well as an EMT or cardiologist, only the bravest and most charitable will attempt to rescue anyone.  In fact, generally the law does not impose any duty at all to rescue someone, such as Gilles Blackburn, who is imperiled by his own risky or foolish behavior.  You could walk past Gilles Blackburn, trapped in a burning car because he crashed it after suffering a heart attack at the North Pole, and no court in the country would punish you.

But of course you'd stop, because you're a moral being.  You couldn't live with yourself if you didn't.

An all-volunteer search society in the hinterlands of British Columbia is just that: a society of Good Samaritans.  Hopefully Mr. Blackburn's loss, tragic as it was, won't lead directly to other lives being lost as a result of his foolish and misguided lawsuit.

Last 5 posts by Patrick Non-White


  1. laiq says

    I used to be a volunteer firefighter in a rural area a few hours away from Golden. Canada has its own flavour of good Samaritan law; the good Samaritan is protected unless they can be proved to have been grossly negligent. The guy who taught our first responder course explained it with "Not only were you dumb enough to take the knife out of the wound, but you twisted it first."

    I imagine that since they're only being accused of inaction they'll be safe. But even if they're on a good legal footing they'll still have to hire a lawyer to defend them, and that's not the kind of expense that any rural volunteer organization is going to be able to easily bear.

  2. says

    laiq, I don't know how Canadian law works. But in American law, if there is an exception to immunity (like "except in cases of gross negligence"), the immunity is functionally worthless. That's because every plaintiff can, and will, allege gross negligence in every case, and a reasonably skilled lawyer can get past motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment to trial. Under the American system, at least, going that far is financially ruinous whether or not the defense eventually prevails at trial.

  3. Patrick says

    And again, we're not Canadian lawyers, but we don't have meaningful "loser pays" laws in the United States. We suspect that Canada doesn't either, or we'd have heard about it.

  4. Linus says

    I'm also not a Canadian lawyer, but how does this guy get past the "duty" part of his claim? How does the "duty" part survive a quick summary judgment motion? That's long before you get to "gross negligence" or something else that might deal with immunity. Is Canada's set-up for torts different than in the US (or in my case, Idaho)? That is, duty-breach-causation-damages?

  5. Linus says

    Somewhat off-topic, I note that the "asshats" tag is getting a workout lately. And you guys didn't even use it on Bonne Erbe (where it is surely warranted).

  6. Patrick says

    Asshats is our oldest and favorite tag, but we have no criteria on its use. It's up to the discretion of the individual author to use it.

  7. SGP says

    Canada and BC in particular have a strong 'loser pays' system and I would doubt that the Search and Rescue crew would pass on collecting. Good luck in showing significant negligence against them. The police officers may be in a different place as they allegedly failed to investigate – but they will be personally covered and represented by counsel funded by the Government so there will be no easy run up to a settlement.

  8. Patrick says

    Good to know SGP. Usually when we write about the Canadian legal system, we're writing about your miserable Human Rights Commissions, which appear to have no protection for victims of frivolous complaints at all.

  9. Davie says

    What's needed here is for a few people who've been saved by Golden and District Search and Rescue to file suit against Mr Blackburn, that'd give him cause to rethink his actions. As he went out of bounds he endangered himself, bringing the name of the resort into disrepute, so they should sue him too.

  10. The Nels says

    You need the background on the story before making judgments. There were reported signs of "sos" by passing aircraft and the powers that be declined to investigate, so no search and rescue was ever sent till it was way to late. thats what the law suit is about.

  11. Big R says

    This is insane! Sue the volunteers that try to resuce you? …what, becuase YOU went out of bounds? My wife and I enjoy sking all over the province, and are comforted that S&R is always there. We also do lots of other back country activities and we're glad the S&R teams are out there….risking their life for us if we mess up. Mr. Blackburn has now endangered 1000's of lifes by suing for his stupidity…I'm so bitter about this….i'm ALMOST thinking GSAR should have quit last winter while HE needed rescuing. But then that would make as big an ass as Mr. Blackburn!

  12. bob says

    thank god i live in aust where their are some sane people. mr blackburn the word moron comes to mind

  13. Yukoner says

    I am SO glad to see everyone is basically on the same wavelength!

    I was on wilderness SAR in South Africa for 7 years or so, so this hits home for me. I would love to see a counter-suit for neglegent endagerment brought against Mr Blackburn for the people who will die as a result of this lawsuit… but I suspect that would be a hard sell that would take some brave people!

    It is terrible how the incident panned out, and I think the RCMP's lack of reaction should be investigated (though I don't want to judge without knowing their side of the story), but leave the volunteers out of it… hell, he should send them a thank-you note!!!

  14. Melanie says

    I think what Mr. Blackburn is doing is wrong however everyone is forgetting he just went through something so traumatic fortunately most of us will never know what it's like. He is still dealing with not only having lost his wife but watching her die and he most likely has survivor's guilt. We also don't know everything that transpired. He is not in a clear state of mind to say the least and if we try to imagine just for a minute what it would be like if that happened to us maybe we could see where his actions came from.

  15. Patrick says

    I have no idea what Mr. Blackburn is going through Melanie, but assume it's awful. What I can tell, just from reading stories about the case, is that because of this suit (apparently the first anyone can remember being filed against a Canadian volunteer search and rescue association), there is going to be less search and rescue. Assets will be diverted to insurance, associations will shut down, or people won't join the associations in the first place for fear of tort liability.

    Tort liability imposed for their activities in a benevolent rescue association.

  16. Rockies Girl says

    To the Nels:

    You are also forgetting that as your duty as a stranded person, you don't ever make an SOS sign and then just wander away from it. How is anyone going to ever find you if you're wandering around like a moron in the woods?
    I did read the whole story, and he WAS negligent.

  17. Peggy says

    I've been tracking the story and from what I can tell, the main reason for the lawsuit is that the SOS signs in the snow were not investigated by police which resulted in a delayed rescue.

    The part of the story that Mr Blackburn is forgetting to address is the fact that while they did mark SOS's in the snow, he and his wife did not stay at the locations but kept moving on leaving abandoned mark after abandoned mark. Authorities did find the marks and did several fly overs looking for anyone who could have left those marks, but in the absence of a missing persons report or spotting anyone at or near the SOS's, it was decided not to risk the lives of SAR personnel on a follow up ground search, over something that had the markings of a hoax rather than a legitimate problem.

    In a nutshell: if they had stayed put, they'd have been found within a couple of days and no one would have died.

    It's a shame that Mr. blackburn lost his wife but this case is a joke and if successful will only lead to a diminished SAR and more lives lost as less people will be willing to do the job and insurance takes precedence over equipment and training.

  18. Tribal Elder says

    In the US, Civil Air Patrol (CAP) volunteers do 80+% of missing aircraft searches. However, these search missions (and many of CAP's training missions) are at USAF request. When performing a mission at USAF request, CAP is statutorily an auxiliary, and covered by the Federal Tort Claims Act. If it's an Air Force mission, Uncle Sam is our 'insurer'.

  19. Barry says

    While I think Blackburn is an idiot for first getting lost and then abandoning his distress signal, the person who bears the most responsibility for the lawsuit is the greedy lawyer expecting to collect a fee even though he knows this suit will be fruitless for his client (who will stillk pay him).

  20. says

    We have good samaritan laws in NY and we have a gross negligence standard for volunteer ambulance corps. That doesn't stop some of my colleagues from suing in delay cases – when the volunteer corps gets there too late to help (e.g., in heart attack cases). Plaintiffs lose those cases and even though the corps have insurance there is a significant cost for the defense. Good argument for loser pays system, I say.

  21. GMan says

    Yes I'm sure he's going through a very tough time right now. But that's no reason to sue everybody.

    Yeah yeah he lost his wife, the rescue could've been conducted sooner, bla bla bla, but…he went out of bound to begin with! You go out of bound, you're on your own.

    I'm not gonna jump off a tall building and then sue the developer for not having safety measures around the building to make sure I don't crush my spine.

  22. alexofthefrozennorth says

    Let's also remember that it was Golden Search and Rescue (yes, the group he is suing) that conducted the resuce that got his sorry butt out of the woods. Nice way to say thanks.

  23. AL says

    Actually as a physician I WOULD WALK BY SOMEONE IN A BURNING CAR. I assume a lawyer will be along in a minute to save the fellow, administer CPR, find the correct hospital in which to send him, and find the negligent party that caused all this ruckus.

  24. Patrick says

    Note that the above is not the "Al" who comments here frequently. I'm sure OUR Al would do the right thing, law be damned.

  25. Nash says

    What next….? Suicide attempts suing doctors for saving their lives but not stitching them up perfectly? Maybe it's the Lawyer who should be criticised here. Like all bottom feeders (lawyers) it's just another way at paying the rent… Sue someone, everyone. At least that way they are more likely to get some cash.
    As for the RCMP…. they may have been justified in not investigating the report, as they more than likely get hundreds of unfounded reports… but at least they are covered by the Government when it all goes wrong. As for Mr Blackburn. You or your wife made a stupid mistake that day. No one told you to ski where you did. Your wife, family and you paid for that mistake. Don't now start trying to clear your own conscience in blaming others, especially on the advice of a lawyer. It will take you down a slippery slope and create a bitter man and family.

  26. Teresa says

    Okay okay, I am embarrased to be from the same province as Mr. Blackburn, BUT I believe he chose to go out of bounds, I believe he checked out of the hotel and did not notify anyone where they were going, I believe they moved their car from the resort parking lot, I believe that NO ONE except him and his wife were responsible for thier predicament and her death. I beleive that this lawsuit should be thrown out.
    It is possible the reason he ( a self proclaim survivalist) took his wife out of bounds and kept moving away from the SOS signs was to get rid of his wife, collect the insurance ( double in the case of accidental death) and then figured out their was even more money there!

  27. Greg says

    Few things pop into mind.

    First off all, maybe the Crown (whose job is to do what is in the best interests of the state IE everyone in Canada) should threaten to prosecute Mr Gilles with criminal negligence reslting in death, unless he drops the suit. I see that being 100% legal as it is in the best interests of the state to have this lawsuit fail and as a reuslt allow our SAR teams to remain active and operational, not to have them close shop due to frivilous lawsuits by people who placed themselves in harms way.

    Second, I hope the family/friends/community of Mr Gilles have enough back bone to tell him how ridiculous this suit is. It is his fault they went out of bounds. It is his fault they werent properly equipped. It is his fault they didn't know proper SAF procedures and to stay near the SOS signs. The whole entire situation is his/their fault. These people should have the backbone to confront him with that in order to allow the rest of Canada and her tourists to enjoy the very same SAR options that has saved countless lives FOR FRR BY VOLUNTEERS.

  28. Gordo says

    It's in the news again and the sue-ees have filed statements of defence (taking up vaulable time & money from their core business of saving people's dumb asses.)

    I think Teresa could well be right !