In June 2000, the Quebec Government adopted Bill 112, the Fire Safety Act1 – the culmination of several years of consultations by the Public Security Ministry with the various stakeholders in the area of fire prevention. The goal of the process was to reduce human and material loss attributable to fire in all regions of the Province of Quebec. The Act introduces “fire safety cover plans” as a primary tool for fire safety management by elected municipal officials. It is also meant to assist the planning of emergency response operations by fire safety personnel on the ground. A major benefit for a municipality or regional county municipality (RCM) entailed in adopting and implementing a fire safety cover plan is that it affords immunity from being sued in relation to fire service interventions. That immunity, conferred pursuant to section 47 of the Act, had not been the subject of consideration by the Quebec courts until March 31, 2011, when the Quebec Superior Court handed down judgment in Compagnie canadienne d’assurances générales Lombard c. St Jérôme (Ville de).2 The decision is an important one for Quebec municipalities and other fire service stakeholders, as it delimits, for the first time, the scope of the immunity granted under the Act.
In this case, Justice Daniel W. Payette had to rule on a single question, namely, whether the City of St-Jérôme could benefit from the immunity in connection with legal proceedings taken in regard to an intervention by its fire department at the scene of a fire in April 2005.3 The insurance company (Lombard), subrogated to the rights of the owner of the damaged property, alleged in the action that the City’s fire department had been negligent, among other things, by not ensuring that the fire was truly extinguished before leaving the scene. In fact, the fire had started again after the firefighters left, resulting in substantial additional damage to the property. In defence, the City invoked the immunity under section 47 of the Act since, in the summer of 2003, it established a fire safety cover plan in conjunction with the RCM Rivière du Nord. The cover plan was then adopted by the RCM in August 2003 and declared compliant by the Minister of Public Security in May 2004.
Since the questions relating to the adoption, entry into force and implementation of the cover plan by the City were the subject of joint admissions by the parties, the Court’s analysis was limited to the dispute regarding the interpretation of the word “intervention” as used in section 47 of the Act. The section provides that the fire safety service of an entity that has duly adopted and implemented a fire safety cover plan is “exempt from liability for any damage that may result from [its] intervention during a fire […].” Lombard argued that the term “intervention” should be construed narrowly and limited to situations where the alleged negligence was directly related to the four components of a fire safety intervention, as defined by the Minister in his statement of fire safety general policies (orientations) accompanying the Act.4 These components are 1) the intervention timeline, 2) the intervention personnel, 3) the intervention equipment, and 4) the water supplies needed. These policies make no reference to operations related to clearing, searching and extinguishing a fire’s remains, which, in Lombard’s view, meant that the immunity could not apply to them. For its part, the City argued that the term “intervention” appearing in section 47 of the Act should receive the broad interpretation frequently ascribed to it in relation to fire safety, and thus encompass all operations performed by firefighters, including inspections made after a fire.
Justice Payette began by noting that none of the exceptions under section 47 of the Act that might have applied so as to deny the City the benefit of the immunity were applicable in this case since it was acknowledged, by mutual consent of the parties, that the cover plan was duly and properly adopted, implemented and applied. Following a brief overview of the objectives set by the Minister of Public Security at the outset of the parliamentary work that led to the tabling of Bill 112, the judge pointed out a statement by the Minister indicating that the Act’s adoption had sought to neutralize the “pernicious” effects of decisions rendered by the courts in the wake of the ruling in Laurentide Motels Ltd. v. Beauport (City).5 In that case, the Supreme Court of Canada had found that while municipalities could not be held liable for their policy decisions, they could be held liable for the decisions made by them in relation to the practical execution of those policy decisions. Justice Payette went on to cite the Minister’s comments at the time of the parliamentary debates to the effect that the adoption of the Act was intended to stem the steady growth in liability suits against municipalities relating to firefighting services since the Laurentide Motels decision. Indeed, while the parliamentary debates were going on, the Minister even saw the immunity as a reward for municipalities that were diligent in developing and implementing a fire safety cover plan.
For Justice Payette, these objectives showed that the lawmaker wished the immunity to apply broadly to all firefighters’ interventions at the time of a fire. Consequently, the Court dismissed Lombard’s argument based on the putative relationship between the components described in the general policies statement (orientations), which was to have guided the development of the cover plan, and the immunity protected by section 47 of the Act. In the Court’s view, if the intent had been to limit the immunity in this way, the lawmaker would have done so explicitly in the Act. Justice Payette also rejected Lombard’s argument that the common meaning of the word “intervention” does not encompass work or operations that take place after a fire is extinguished. Indeed, the Court points out that both the Guide des opérations à l’intention des services de sécurité incendie published by the Public Security Ministry and the City of Montréal’s directives for safety operations include the work involved in clearing and surveillance of a fire’s remains as part of an “intervention.”
The Court concludes its analysis with a review of related or comparable legislation containing immunity provisions similar to the one in the Act. For example, the Act respecting pre-hospital emergency services6 provides for persons who act as first responders at the scene of a disaster or accident to have such immunity. During the debates that led to the adoption of that act, the Minister of Health and Social Services had noted that firefighters were already “exempted from liability in the course of their work” and that it was necessary to harmonize the two acts since firefighters are often de facto first responders. The Court also draws a parallel with the immunity granted to certified 9-1-1 emergency centres and dispatch centres for police and fire departments under the Civil Protection Act.7 In light of these provisions, Justice Payette therefore concludes that the immunity granted under the Fire Safety Act must cover all the operations that a firefighter may be called upon to perform at the time of a fire, including clearing and surveillance of the fire’s remains.
Justice Payette’s ruling marks a major development in Quebec municipal law in that it establishes the effectiveness of the defence that the lawmaker has seen fit to introduce for the benefit of municipalities and RCMs that have duly adopted and implemented a fire safety cover plan. In light of this decision, it would now appear that plaintiffs wishing to hold such entities liable for the actions of their firefighters may succeed in doing so only if they are able to show that there was gross negligence or intentional fault or that the fire safety cover plan adopted by the municipality or RCM and approved by the Minister of Public Security was not properly implemented. This suggests that the Minister’s stated objective at the time the First Safety Act was adopted, namely, to rein in lawsuits against public entities in relation to firefighting services, will be facilitated by the ruling. However, it should be noted that an appeal from Justice Payette’s judgment was lodged on April 29, 2011. It will therefore be interesting to see if the Quebec Court of Appeal chooses to weigh in on this issue, and if so, whether it will agree with the broad construction of the Act’s provisions by the Superior Court.