An improperly built bridge sparked a debris flood near Sicamous in 2012, a B.C. Supreme judge ruled this week as he handed down a $2 million court decision.
This week, Justice Gary P. Weatherill ruled in favour of the plaintiffs who sued the province, the District of Sicamous and an area couple for financial losses stemming from the flood. The lawsuit was lengthy, involving 58 court dates between April and October of 2018 in Kelowna.
The plaintiffs, Waterway Houseboats and Vinco Holdings, claimed the flood and the resulting damage was caused by improper repair work done by the defendants following a similar flood in July of 1997.
Specifically, the plaintiffs said a replacement bridge built after the 1997 flood was built too low. During the 2012 flood, a truck was swept into the creek, eventually slamming into the bridge. A bottleneck ensued, with water and debris overflowing the creek’s banks.
The plaintiffs were seeking approximately $10 million for property damage and business losses. Waterway told Global News they were analyzing the verdict and weren’t available for comment. Waterway was reportedly closed for business for three weeks during peak houseboating season.
Waterway Houseboats and Vinco Holdings are located on 6.61 hectares of beachfront property on Mara Lake, beside Sicamous Creek. The lake is located just south of Sicamous.
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According to the court ruling, the 1997 flood caused major damage to Highway 97A and multiple properties along the lake, including Beachcomber Campground, which Vinco later purchased. Waterway has been operating at that location since 2006.
Repair work from the 1997 flood included dredging of Sicamous Creek that was authorized by the province, and replacing a private bridge owned by defendants Bryan and Constance McLaughlin. The bridge spanned Sicamous Creek near Mara Lake.
The court ruling noted that a previous bridge owned by the McLaughlins had been removed as part of the emergency response to the 1997 flood after a build-up of trees, rocks and other debris plugged the bridge, causing the creek to overflow across Mervyn Road and onto the Beachcomber Campground.
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The court ruling said “similar to the 1997 flood, the opening under the McLaughlin bridge became completely blocked, causing the creek to overflow its banks onto the Vinco property and Waterway’s infrastructure. Essentially, the 2012 flood was a repeat of the 1997 flood, but with far worse consequences.”
Justice Weatherill said “(the repairs) were the culmination of months of consultations, discussions and negotiations between representatives of the province of British Columbia, the District of Sicamous, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and, to a lesser degree, the McLaughlins and the (previous Beachcomber Campground owners). The (repairs) were completed in the spring of 1998.”
However, after the 2012 flood, Waterway and Vinco claimed that the bridge was built too low. And when the truck was swept into the creek, it became lodged when it reached the bridge. The plaintiffs said the blockage caused floodwaters to back up and wreak havoc.
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Had the channel restoration and replacement bridge been properly designed and constructed, added the plaintiffs, the truck would have passed underneath and the blockage and resulting flood would not have occurred.
The defendants denied any wrongdoing and said they acted in accordance with all applicable statutes, regulations, and standards at the time. They added damage from the 2012 flood was inevitable and resulted from naturally occurring phenomenon that would have happened regardless of 1997 flood repair work.
The 2012 flood happened on June 23, when Sicamous Creek was overwhelmed with rapid snowmelt from warm weather and heavy rainfall.
“The flow was dark brown in colour and forceful enough to move and flush large boulders, entire full-size trees and their root systems, and other debris into the lake,” wrote Justice Weatherill.
“Trees slammed into McLaughlin Bridge, stalled briefly and then were forced underneath and into the lake. By 3:30 p.m., there was a large mass of trees and debris floating in deep water in the lake to the north of the creek, rotating clockwise.”
The court ruling noted that by 4:45 p.m., the gap between the bottom of the bridge and the top of the creek had narrowed to 10 inches, but Sicamous Creek “was neither backing up nor spreading out into the lake.”
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Upstream, though, the creek’s banks were eroding.
One property owner had parked his new Dodge 1500 crew-cab truck approximately 50 feet from the bank of Sicamous Creek. The property owner testified that he was out of town when the flood hit. When he returned, his truck was gone, along with 50 feet of his property plus a row of approximately 20 to 30 trees.
That truck slammed into the bridge at approximately 5:48 p.m.
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“Prior to its arrival, the debris flow was contained within Sicamous Creek’s channel and was able to pass under the McLaughlin Bridge, albeit with some overbank spillage,” wrote Justice Weatherill.
“I conclude that the truck immediately plugged the channel after slamming into the upstream side of the McLaughlin bridge and becoming lodged underneath it. Being carried by the very fast and powerful flow, more debris arrived at the now-plugged bridge.
The plaintiffs said when the bridge was reinstalled, all three defendants exercised control over its height but nobody took responsibility for its proper design.
The justice agreed.
“Had the blockage not occurred,” he wrote, “I conclude the creek would have continued to flush the majority of the flow during that time into Mara Lake.”
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In summarizing the decision, Justice Weatherill said he “found the province at fault for breaching its duty of care to the plaintiffs. I have found the District and the McLaughlins are each at fault under sec. 21 of the Water Act.
“I have found Waterway and Vinco are 25 per cent at fault for locating their operations on the Vinco Property without taking into account the potential for a debris flood and without any flood mitigation measures being considered.”
Weatherill added “in the circumstances of this case, I cannot conclude that one defendant was more blameworthy than the other, nor can I determine whose actions were responsible for what damages. Accordingly, I conclude that each of the defendants should bear an equal share of the damages.”
Weatherill said Waterway and Vinco were awarded economic loss damages of $887,299 and special damages of $1,166,850. Also, numerous individual houseboat owners were awarded $312,997.
To see the complete court decision, click here.