On February 15, 2009, Gilles Blackburn and his wife, Marie-Josée Fortin, got lost beyond the gates at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort near Golden, BC. Two days later, backcountry skiers reported seeing SOS signs stamped into the snow. Other skiers reported the same thing on the 21st. Nine days after they left the resort, a search-and-rescue team started looking for them. By then, Fortin, 44, had died of hypothermia, and Blackburn, 51, suffered frostbite. Now Blackburn is suing the Golden and District SAR, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort for negligence in conducting a timely search.
Ski resorts get sued all the time. But Blackburn’s suit has wreaked havoc on area search-and-rescue groups. The Golden SAR team discontinued service for one month. “We need assurance that SAR societies have legal protection,” says Kyle Hale, manager for the Golden and District SAR. Rescue teams are adamant that the Canadian provinces—rather than the teams’ own insurance policies—should provide liability protection. Otherwise, they maintain, volunteers assume unreasonable risk. “We’ve actually seen people resigning,” says Peter Reid, president of the Kimberley, BC, SAR, which suspended activity for nine days following news of the lawsuit. “The threat of legal liability makes it more difficult for us to convince recruits that it’s worth spending time away from their families, risking their safety, and making themselves legally vulnerable.”
Blackburn’s suit has also ignited a public debate over the personal liability of backcountry skiers. Canadian newspaper columnists decried his risky behavior and accused him of playing the blame game with the Golden SAR and RCMP. Across Canada, Blackburn is being painted by the media as careless and overly litigious.
In the United States, where 90 percent of SAR’s operations are performed by volunteers, state and federal laws protect individual rescuers “except in cases of gross negligence,” says Howard Paul, spokesman for the U.S.’s National Association for Search and Rescue. But in Canada, “It will be precedent-setting,” says Hale, who hopes the case will urge skiers to be prepared for the backcountry. “You need to be ready to effect your own rescue.”