British Columbia

Widow of grizzly hunter shot by guide gets go-ahead for lawsuit against B.C. outfitter

The widow of an American man shot dead by a guide during a grizzly hunt in central B.C. has won the right to sue the outfitter that organized the expedition.

59-year-old Jeffrey Cooper was killed during a Wistaria Guiding expedition in 2014

Jeffrey Cooper was killed when two hunting guides fired at a charging grizzly. (File photo/Alex Taylor/Parks Canada)

The widow of an American man shot dead by a guide during a grizzly hunt in central B.C. has won the right to sue the outfitter that organized the expedition.

Fifty-nine-year-old Jeffrey Cooper was killed on May 26, 2014 near Burns Lake, while taking part in a hunting trip with Wistaria Guiding. The dead man's widow, Shirley Cooper, filed a lawsuit against the outfitter in 2015, asking for damages under the Family Compensation Act.

But Wistaria has argued the company was protected by a liability waiver that Cooper signed before a previous hunting trip in 2013 and asked for the claim to be dismissed.

B.C. Supreme Court Nigel Kent rejected that line of thinking in a judgment Friday.

Waiver 'has no application' to accident

Kent wrote that the waiver "has no application to the fatal accident that occurred some 8½ months following completion of the September 2013 hunt …. They were, quite literally, two different hunting seasons. The 2014 hunt required a new hunting licence."

Jeffrey Cooper was an enthusiastic hunter who owned and operated a lumber mill in Toutle, Washington State, before his death. He had gone on Wistaria expeditions in B.C. in 2009 and 2012, killing moose both times but failed to bag a grizzly when he returned in 2013.

To make up for the unsuccessful hunt, Wistaria organized the 2014 trek at no charge to Cooper.

The night before he was killed, Cooper shot and injured a grizzly, but it disappeared into the darkness before he could track it, according to court documents.

When Cooper located the animal the next morning, it charged at him and the two guides accompanying him opened fire at the wounded bear.

One of the bullets struck Cooper instead. No one was charged in his death.

Guides and owners named in suit

His widow's suit names Wistaria, along with owners Julie and Gary Blackwell and guides Robert Cork and Derrick Blackwell, as defendants.

Shirley Cooper claims her family's income came almost entirely from her husband's mill and that his death was caused by the outfitter's negligence.

The defendants have denied responsibility. In Wistaria's statement of defence, the company says Cooper failed to heed his guides' warnings and approached the wounded grizzly when he should have known it wasn't safe.

The claims of both parties have yet to be tested in court.

Judge cast doubt on waiver's legality

In his reasons for judgment last week, Kent also casts doubt on whether Wistaria's liability waiver would have protected the company, even if Cooper had signed it again before the 2014 hunt.

Kent wrote that the waiver didn't actually contain any language expressly shielding the outfitter and its employees from legal liability.

"One can readily see that the intent of the document is to have the client release Wistaria from all liability for loss sustained in the hunting expedition…. However, one might rightly ask whether the confusing syntax and poor grammar actually accomplishes that task," the judge said.