BC negligent in 2012 floods

A judge has found the District of Sicamous, the provincial government and a couple who owns lakefront property on Mara Lake liable for more than $2 million in damages and loss of earnings following a devastating flood in 2012.

On Tuesday, Justice Gary Weatherill handed down the decision in Kelowna court, after a long and complex trial with many starts and stops dating back to April 2018.

In June 2012, the area around Sicamous saw warm weather and rapid snow melt. Combined with heavy rains on June 23, Sicamous Creek was raging, pulling trees, rocks and other debris downstream and into Mara Lake. Justice Weatherill called it a “perfect storm” that eventually resulted in an “extraordinary” debris flood.

That day, Sicamous resident Mike Whitehead had parked his new Dodge pickup truck about 50 feet from the creek's edge, but some time before 6 p.m.,the rushing creek eroded his property, taking with it about 30 large trees, and the new truck.

Just before 6 p.m., the truck, racing downstream, smashed into a private bridge near Mara Lake, which was owned by Bryan and Constance McLaughlin. The truck exacerbated a blockage that had already formed under the bridge, and “caused floodwaters to back up and wreak havoc,” according to Justice Weatherill.

Much of that “havoc” resulted in significant damage to the property Waterways Houseboats leased from Vinco Holdings.

Justice Weatherill ruled that were it not for the truck blocking the creek, the resulting flood onto the houseboat company's property would have not occurred.

Waterways lost most of its infrastructure and the business incurred significant clean-up costs. Additionally, they were forced to close for three weeks, losing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in business.

Sicamous Creek saw a similar flooding incident in 1997, when the McLaughlins' bridge was removed by an excavator to clear a blockage.

The McLaughlins replaced the bridge the following year, building it 0.6 metres higher than the previous one using Provincial Emergency Program funding. Paul Doyle, a now-retired engineer with the Ministry of the Environment’s Water Management Branch, had approved the new bridge height, on the condition that a “qualified professional engineer” design the bridge and the District of Sicamous sign off on it.

The District refused to take any responsibility for the replacement bridge, and after direction from his boss to “sort out the controversy” and get the bridge completed, Doyle amended his approval to forego the District's approval, but he had some reservations.

“This should satisfy everyone’s concerns (until the next flood),” he wrote in a memo to Bryan McLaughlin, informing him of the approval.

Despite the stipulation to have a “qualified professional engineer," design the bridge, Bryan McLaughlin hired a mechanical engineer to design the replacement.

“Thus, the McLaughlin bridge replacement was completed in May 1998 without the involvement of a professional engineer qualified in river hydrology,” Justice Weatherill said.

Under the Water Act, the replacement bridge was required to handle a one-in-200-year flood, but the replacement bridge was not high enough.

Because of this, Justice Weatherill found the McLaughlins did not do their due diligence, and are partially liable for the resulting damage 14 years later.

During trial, Brian LaCas, a professional engineer with a specialty in hydrological engineering, testified the replacement bridge should have been a whole 2.4 metres higher than it was. Doyle, with the Ministry of Environment, had some concerns about the new bridge in 1998, but he did nothing to address those concerns.

“As a result of Mr. Doyle’s negligence, the province is liable to the plaintiffs,” Justice Weatherill ruled.

Additionally, after the 1997 flood, the District of Sicamous was tasked with restoring Sicamous Creek to its pre-flood condition. Justice Weatherill ruled the district failed to meet all the conditions of that restoration as laid out by the province, and simply left the contractor they hired “to his own devices.” Thus, the district was deemed liable as well.

Despite the failings of the province, the District of Sicamous and the McLaughlins, Waterways Houseboats and Vinco Holdings were also found to be 25 per cent responsible for the damage, because they moved their business to the area, “knowing the substantial risk of flooding that Sicamous Creek posed.”

Subtracting that 25 per cent, Justice Weatherill awarded Waterways and Vinco special damages in the amount of $1,166,850, plus an additional $887,299 for economic loss. Additionally, several individual houseboat owners who use Waterways to rent out their boats, were awarded $312,997 for loss of earnings.

The three defendants will split the burden of the judgement equally.

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