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.
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.
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