A Yellowknife man who is suing Bell Mobility for charging fees for non-existent 911 service went back to court Tuesday in a case that could affect more than 50,000 rural and northern cellphone users across Canada.
James Anderson launched the $6-million lawsuit in 2007 on behalf of Bell Mobility customers who do not have 911 coverage in their areas but are billed 75 cents a month for it anyway.
This week, lawyers with the Toronto firm Landy Marr Kats are asking the N.W.T. Supreme Court to certify Anderson's case as a class-action lawsuit. Three days have been scheduled for the hearing, which began Tuesday in Yellowknife.
Anderson estimates that more than 50,000 Bell customers across Canada could take part in the case should it be certified as a class action.
The hearing started Tuesday morning with Sam Marr, one of Anderson's lawyers, arguing that there is no way an individual Bell Mobility customer could take on the large corporation over a monthly fee that amounts to about $9 a year.
Without class-action lawsuits, companies would suffer no legal consequences for actions that cause small but widespread harm, Marr told the court.
'Only game in town'
Bell has argued it has not breached its contract with Anderson and customers like him, since those customers knew that service was not available when they had signed on with the company.
However, Anderson said, he did not have much choice in the matter.
"When I took out the plan originally, they were the only game in town. So yes, I agreed to pay the fee, but it was either that or have no cellphone," he said outside court on Tuesday.
"If Bell is right, they can charge whatever they want, and call it whatever they like, as long as people agree to pay it."
Bell, the largest cellular service provider in the N.W.T., says it has about 20,160 customers in the territory alone, according to court documents.
Anderson's allegations have not been tested in court. The presiding judge pointed out that Anderson's lawsuit is not on trial this week, but rather the court is deciding whether his case qualifies as a class-action suit.
No 911 service in N.W.T.
There is no 911 number in any N.W.T. community, including Yellowknife, the capital. Instead, each community has its own seven-digit emergency numbers.
If a caller dials 911 in the territory, a recorded message states: "There are no 911 services in this area. Please hang up and dial the emergency number for your area, or hang up and dial 0 to reach an operator."
Bell Mobility changed the wording of its customer contracts in 2008, after Anderson had launched his lawsuit, to say the the 75-cent charge is for "routing" 911 calls.
The company argued that it's not responsible for establishing 911 emergency phone systems in places that don't have them. Rather, the company said, it's the responsibility of local governments to provide an operator to answer 911 calls in those areas.
Bell also said cellphones are portable devices by definition, so customers such as Anderson could call 911 from their phones when they travel to jurisdictions that do have the service.