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Winters Hotel Fire Victims Sue City, Building Owner and Operator

Class action lawsuit filed one year after the fatal SRO fire that killed two and displaced 144 tenants.

Jen St. Denis 11 Apr 2023TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

On the one-year anniversary of a fatal SRO fire, former Winters Hotel tenants are suing the City of Vancouver, the owner of the hotel and the operator that ran the building as supportive housing.

The lawsuit filed today alleges that Atira Property Management Inc. and the City of Vancouver were negligent in failing to take prompt action after another fire three days earlier. The statement of claim also names Atira Women’s Resource Society, Atira Development Society and Winters Residence Ltd., the owner of the hotel. APMI is a for-profit subsidiary of Atira Women’s Resource Society. APMI is the largest operator of SROs — the most challenging type of housing to run — in the province.

None of the allegations has been tested or proven in court, and none of the defendants have yet responded to the statement of claim. The class action has to be certified in B.C. Supreme Court before it can proceed.

The 107-year-old building was gutted by a fire that quickly got out of control on April 11, 2022. A fire investigation report completed by Vancouver Fire Rescue Services found that the alarm and sprinkler system had been shut off after a previous fire on April 8, and that staff at the housing operator, Atira Property Management Inc., had not called a fire systems contractor to reset the sprinkler and alarm until the morning of April 11.

The fire department’s investigation also found that some fire extinguishers were empty at the time of the fire because they had been used to fight the April 8 fire and had not been replaced. VFRS determined that the fire had been accidentally caused by a tenant who left candles burning on their bed.

Mary Ann Garlow, 68, and Dennis Guay, 53, died in the fire. Both the Winters and the Gastown Hotel next door could not be inhabited following the fire.

The lawsuit, filed by lawyer Jamie Thornback of Camp Fiorante Matthews Mogerman LLP, alleges that the poverty of the Winters Hotel tenants played a part in the lack of protection from fire.

“The Atira defendants and Winters Residence did not consider the residents to have political, economic or social power,” the lawsuit alleges. “In part because of this perceived lack of power, Atira and Winters Residence did not ensure the Winter Hotel fire safety systems were maintained and operated to acceptable standards.”

The suit alleges “the city’s interactions with the Winters Hotel were influenced by a similar perception. In part because of this perceived lack of power, Atira and Winters Residence did not ensure that the Winters Hotel safety systems were maintained and operated to acceptable standards.”

The class action lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for the tenants who lost all their belongings and were injured and traumatized by the fire. Jennifer Hansma, a former Winters Hotel tenant, is the lead plaintiff.

According to the statement of claim, Hansma worked a night shift on the evening of April 10 and returned home to sleep the morning of April 11.

She woke up to the sound of a neighbour kicking her door and yelling “fire!” Clouds of smoke were already pouring into her room. She could hear her cat crying from under his chair, but didn’t have the strength to move the chair or coax him out.

With no choice but to leave her beloved cat behind, according to the lawsuit, Hansma escaped the burning building through thick black smoke, wearing pajamas and socks. She was covered in soot and her fingers were burned from touching the door handle.

Hansma continues to suffer from psychological injuries, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit alleges that Vancouver’s fire department and city staff were aware that the Winters was vulnerable to fire, because APMI had received a “disproportionately large” number of fire safety tickets and violations and “had also experienced a disproportionate number of fires.”

One week before the fire, on April 5, firefighters met with APMI to discuss fire safety in SROs operated by APMI, including the Winters Hotel, the lawsuit claims. “As a result of these meetings, fire inspections and attending at fires, the city was aware that there were unmitigated fire safety hazards in the Winters Hotel.”

After attending the April 8 fire, the lawsuit alleges, the city was aware that fire escapes were not functional, fire exits were locked or obstructed and fire extinguishers needed replacement and servicing. But, the statement of claim alleges, the city took no steps to ensure the deficiencies were corrected.

After the April 8 fire, the fire service ordered APMI to have the alarm and sprinkler system serviced. The fire department also ordered APMI to have a fire watch in place until the sprinklers and alarm were functioning again, and to call Fire Hall No. 2 “when the corrective action was complete,” the lawsuit alleges. The city was aware the sprinklers and alarm were still not functioning when the second fire started on April 11, according to the lawsuit.

The statement of claim also alleges that APMI did not have sufficient staff on duty at the Winters to conduct the fire watch and had not properly trained staff on how to do a fire watch. The lawsuit alleges that as the owner of the building, Winters Residence had responsibility for the condition of the Winters Hotel and owed a duty of care to the plaintiffs that they and their property would be safe inside the hotel.

The lawsuit further alleges that APMI or the other Atira defendants did not properly distribute donations that had been received for victims of the Winters fire.  [Tyee]

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