A Quebec Superior Court judge has approved a class-action lawsuit for more than 300 people who were stranded in their cars overnight on Highway 13 during a snowstorm last winter.
Heavy snow and two disabled tractor-trailers trapped motorists on the highway, some for as long as 12 hours. It was 4:30 a.m. before Montreal firefighters arrived at the scene to help stranded motorists.
In a decision dated Oct. 30, Justice Donald Bisson ruled the class-action lawsuit can proceed. Anyone stranded on the highway for any length of time between 7:00 p.m. last March 14 and 12:00 p.m. the next day is eligible to take part.
Quebec's Transport Ministry, the Sûreté du Québec, the City of Montreal and the province's automobile insurance board, the SAAQ, are all named as defendants.
The plaintiffs are seeking $2,500 in compensation for each person stuck, plus compensation for any damage to vehicles or towing fees.
'Disgusting display of incompetence'
Premier Philippe Couillard apologized to people who were stuck on the highway in the days following the incident and ordered an investigation.
That investigation concluded there were "serious organizational shortcomings" and communication issues involving both Transports Québec and the SQ.
Marlene Berman was stuck in her car for nine hours on the night of the snowstorm. She told CBC the decision to allow the lawsuit to proceed is an important step. She said she's still bitter about the government's response to the incident.
"The more I think of it — even though it's water under the bridge, it happened, life goes on — I think it's still a rather disgusting display of incompetence," Berman said.
"The chain of command that was supposed to rescue us was literally non-existent. There was not even one faction that showed up and one that didn't: nobody came," she said.
Governments argue no one at fault
Lawyers for the city and the province had argued that since the incident dealt with vehicles, the province's no-fault automobile insurance laws should apply.
That would mean the SAAQ would be responsible for all compensation and no blame would be assessed.
Berman called that argument an insult.
"To have the audacity to turn around and say, 'Hey, no one's at fault here,'" she exclaimed. "Yes, there's a lot of fault here."
Transport Minister André Fortin told reporters at the National Assembly Tuesday that he couldn't comment on the decision to allow the lawsuit to proceed because the case is before the courts.
However, he said he's confident the government has addressed most of the problems that contributed to the incident.
"We don't ever want to see a situation like what happened on Highway 13 ever happen again in Quebec," Fortin said.
He said the government has added additional teams of staff to support traffic control centres and snow-clearing teams during major storms.
He also said the government has adopted a new rule requiring all snow-clearing vehicles contracted by the government to be equipped with GPS tracking.
"That's so we know how many trucks are on the road, what they've plowed, what's the last time they went through, how much salt they've put down. That's all information we have that we did not have before," Fortin said.