A proposed class-action lawsuit is alleging that those charged with resident safety in a downtown Vancouver SRO did not do enough to prevent the fatal fire that burned it down in 2022.
The Winters Hotel went down in flames on April 11 last year, killing 68-year-old Mary Garlow and 53-year-old Dennis Guay. More than 70 people, a women’s shelter, and several businesses were displaced from the Gastown heritage building, which was torn down shortly afterward.
The proposed class action, filed in B.C. Supreme Court on Tuesday, claims the City of Vancouver, Winters Residence Ltd., Atira Property Management Inc., Atira Development Society, and Atira Women’s Resource Society, breached their duty of care to tenants.
Former Winters Hotel resident Jennifer Hansma is identified as the lead plaintiff in initial, unfiled court documents obtained by Global News.
The class action, which has not yet been certified, claims the tenants’ perceived lack of “political, economic, or social power” contributed to the disrepair and poor management practices that put them in harm’s way during the fire.
“No one took steps to reset the sprinkler or fire alarm systems, or replace fire extinguishers,” it claims. “The residents had no warnings about the fire and no means to fight it.”
The lawsuit seeks punitive, general, special and aggravated damages, compensation for past and future loss of income, compensation for health-care costs, and more. None of the allegations have been proven.
Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services have previously indicated the fire was “accidental,” set off by unattended candles that were left burning in a second-floor unit.
Three days before that fire, however, the four-storey Winters Hotel had experienced another fire that was extinguished by the building’s sprinkler systems. At the time, fire crews issued a notice of violation to have the fire suppression systems serviced and put the building under a fire watch.
The lawsuit claims the Atira defendants, which operated and leased the SRO, did not maintain a “reasonable fire watch” after that incident and did not contact a fire inspection company to reset the sprinkler and alarm systems until the morning of April 11.
“The City, Winters Residence, and Atira Defendants knew that, if another fire were to occur before all defects were remedied, residents were likely to suffer catastrophic consequences,” it states.
“The City, Winters Residence, and Atira Defendants did not take reasonable steps to mitigate the risk of another fire or warn residents.”
The proposed class action further alleges that Atira collected public donations for the displaced residents after the fire, but only distributed a portion of them to those residents, and did so unevenly. In addition to damages, it seeks a public statement to that effect.
In an emailed statement, Atira Property Management Inc. and Atira Women’s Resource Society CEO Janice Abbott said she hasn’t seen the lawsuit yet and Atira will not comment until it has had time to review and consider it.
“Today we remember and honour Mary Garlow and Dennis Guay, whose lives were lost last year when fire destroyed the Winters Residence. We are also focused on the tenants affected by the fire; and we extend support to those fighting for justice, while still navigating their own personal loss and recovery,” she wrote.
“The Winters’ fire was one of a number of devastating fires that happened in this community last spring and summer, and that continue to happen daily in the Downtown Eastside. We urge the government to commence the inquest it called for last year, and to speed up its SRO replacement program. We must fix this broken system that continues to put people made most vulnerable at the greatest risk.”
In its own emailed statement, the City of Vancouver said, “Should the City be served with a class action, we would need to review it before providing any comment.” Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services further said it did not have time to comment on Tuesday.
The lawsuit alleges the city, which is responsible for building inspections, knew the Winters Hotel needed portable fire extinguisher replacements, had non-functioning fire escapes, and locked or obstructed fire exists, prior to the April 11 catastrophe, and failed to ensure they were replaced in time. The municipality held the SRO to a lower standard of safety compliance than other buildings, it adds, and allowed fire code violations to remain undealt with for long periods of time.
“The fire spread quickly because of the design of the Winters Hotel and the ventilation fans left by the City,” it claims. “If the fire safety systems had been serviceable, the fire would have been extinguished before it spread from unit 206 and none of the residents or visitors would have been injured.”
Jamie Thornback, a partner at CFM and representative for the plaintiffs, said that in his experience, in a building where tenants are respected, “things are going to get taken care of quickly.”
“I think the suit is really important because this is a class action which really will give access to justice to the residents of the Winters Hotel,” he told Global News.
“Often it can be difficult for people who do not have a lot of money to access our justice system, and this class action is an opportunity for them to get that justice and get fair compensation for what happened to them.”
In a Tuesday news release, plaintiff Hansma said “it’s time for answers.”
“I lost my best friend, my cat, my family heirlooms, gifts from my mother who’s passed away. I’ll never get anything back,” she said. “$500 and a TV aren’t enough for any of us to start our lives over again. We’ve waited long enough for answers from Atira.”
At a rally announcing the lawsuit in the Downtown Eastside on Tuesday, former tenants of the hotel said they were never properly cared for or compensated by their landlords in the aftermath of the disaster. A woman named Wendy said she “barely escaped” and it was “the most horrible thing.”
“As I left, I did not know that the screams I was hearing were my friends dying,” she told the crowd. “I got out from the grace of God because Mary lived next door to me and Dennis lived next door to me.
“I didn’t know how serious it was until I got out and I saw the roof melting, but they hadn’t even called the fire department at that point.”
The BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU), which represents hundreds of people working for Atira Property Management Inc. in the neighbourhood, is supporting the plaintiffs.
“We are committed to working with the community and ensuring the workplaces are safe, the homes we live in are safe, secure and healthy for all of us,” said executive vice-president Kari Michaels. “We’re here with the community to say enough is enough … an injury to one is an injury to all.”
The group held a memorial for the two victims on Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of the tragedy.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to fix a typo in the lead plaintiff’s name.