An attorney representing victims of the 2013 Lemon Creek oil spill says he is disappointed with the province’s response to their class action lawsuit.
“It is unfortunate that the defendants, including British Columbia, are playing so hard with a class of fuel accident victims on the pure procedural question of whether their claims under the Class Proceedings Act can be heard together,” said David Aaron.
Aaron was in court September 8, making his second appearance before the BC Court of Appeal on whether the victims of the fuel spill represented a group of people who can seek damages as a whole. A judge had previously ruled that this could be a class action lawsuit, but that was taken to a higher court. At the direction of that court, the judge adjusted his ruling in May 2021 and reaffirmed the class action lawsuit — only for the defendants in the case to appeal again.
“Basically, the appeals court told the chamber judge to do something, and he did it,” explains Aaron. “And the second appeal is whether he got it right.”
The original lawsuit stems from the 80,000 gallons of jet fuel spilled in Lemon Creek in July 2013 by a truck driver making a delivery to a fire department. The oil spill forced the evacuation of thousands of people living up to 25 miles downriver in the Slocan Valley.
The spill also killed fish and forced residents to seek alternate sources of drinking water for themselves and their livestock for days. Local residents affected by the spill have filed lawsuits for damages. And since then, Aaron says, the province and other defendants have used their deep pockets to delay justice for local residents demanding damages.
“It’s all about access to justice and the justice economy, and the province knows that,” he told the Valley Voice. “It is disappointing that the province is creating such a steep climb for residents of the Slocan Valley who, to date, nine years after the oil spill, have not been compensated for their evacuation costs.
“You would think that at least the province would be more supportive of class action lawsuits as a means of promoting public interest litigation on behalf of an aggrieved community.”
He also says it’s ironic because Kootenay West’s MLA Katrine Conroy was a vocal advocate of timely compensation when she was in opposition.
“Now that she is in government, she has been reticent and allegedly failed to resolve this issue on behalf of her constituents,” he says.
Wheels turn slowly
The appellate court could dismiss the second motion before them and bring the class action lawsuit to trial. Or they could order the lower court to make another attempt to determine if the lawsuit is a proper class action. In both cases, however, the end result introduces further delays in the suit.
“The most recent appeal, hearing date was October 15, 2018, and the verdict was issued the following April 2019,” he says. “That gives you a gauge of how long the court could ponder this matter before reaching a verdict.”
Aaron says they’ve already lost people who brought the case forward, like Marilyn Burgoon, who started the historic case in the first place. The community activist died in December 2019.
“The wheels of justice are turning slowly, lawyers are used to it, but I don’t expect the community to accept that and I don’t think they should be.”
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