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Suit seeks $900 million

Andrew Philips

By Andrew Philips, Special to Postmedia Network

Not everyone involved in a class-action lawsuit against the province due to water-level issues on three of Ontario’s most famed lakes is a “millionaire.”


That’s according to Troy Lehman, senior partner at Oatley Vigmond law firm in Barrie.

Lehman said there were some nasty comments directed toward those he represents when word got out earlier this month residents, cottage owners and business owners on Lakes Muskoka, Rosseau and Joseph were launching a $900-million class-action suit against the Ontario government because of flooding caused by high water levels and drifting ice that damaged docks, boathouses and properties during the spring runoff.

“There’s lot of wealth on those lakes,” Lehman said, noting some people commenting online questioned why regular taxpayers were footing the bill for “rich people.”

Lehman said the lakes are also home to families who don’t have a lot of money but have cottages that have been passed down through the generations.

The Ministry of Natural Resources is responsible for controlling water levels in the lakes, and the residents blame poor management and negligence for allowing the levels to become dangerous.

Lehman said a meeting Sunday in Port Carling attracted about 40 people who wanted to learn more about the action and whether they should be involved.

“We’ve engaged a number of people who had suffered damage,” he said, noting his firm has also received phone calls from those seeking more information.

“Our list is growing. I expect there will be hundreds of claimants.”

While the lawsuit has been filed in court, Lehman is awaiting a statement of defence from the ministry, which will “have their own investigators” look at the claim.

Once the defence statement is filed, Lehman said, his group will appear before the court to try to have the class action certified so it can proceed. During that hearing, a judge would have to decide whether the case has merit, deals with common issues and features an identifiable class of people.

Lehman said the majority of class-action claims that are certified are eventually settled rather than go to trial.

The ministry’s only comment on the matter has been a short statement saying it was “sympathetic” to those who had property damage but that severe weather conditions are out of its control and that the spring melt was earlier and faster than normal this year.

“Over 170 mm of precipitation fell over a very short period of time, combining with high winds and ice flows to cause severe spring flooding,” the ministry said. “We have lowered water levels in ministry dams when appropriate. Lowering water levels may provide limited relief from flooding. (Ministry) dams were not designed to be flood-control structures and don’t have the capacity to store or hold back flood waters.”

Peter Burgess, the representative plaintiff in the suit, said it’s frustrating to suffer widespread property damage and not be able to afford to fix it.

“It’s a terrible feeling to have something crushed by the elements,” he said.

The Burgess family waterfront property on Lake Rosseau was flooded twice in the past few years, and its two-storey boathouse collapsed this spring and could cost up to $700,000 to rebuild.

“Insurance companies don’t insure wharfs or docks due to flooding or ice damage, but they do insure due to wind damage, so I had to build the argument that it was due to all three elements,” said Burgess. “So, I still have no money from (the insurance company). They’re throwing some scraps on the table.”

— With files from Canadian Press 

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