'I stood up for … my rights against criminals on my property': Lawsuit dropped against landowner
New Alberta legislation that boosts protection for property owners was key factor, lawyers say
The rural Alberta landowner who became a lightning rod for the debate over property rights learned Thursday that he's no longer being sued by a trespasser he shot, and has also dropped his suit against the other man.
"From the start of this, I stood up for … my rights against criminals on my property," the landowner, Edouard (Eddie) Maurice said in Calgary Thursday.
"I just hope in the end this inspires everyone that you're able to what you need to do if you believe in it and can stand up for what's right."
Maurice was thrust into the national spotlight in Feb. 24, 2018, after he fired what he said were warning shots at two trespassers on his property near Okotoks, south of Calgary.
A bullet ended up in the arm of one of the intruders, Ryan Watson, but Maurice always insisted he hadn't aimed at them directly and the bullet must have ricocheted.
Watson was initially charged with trespassing, mischief to property, theft under $5,000, possession of methamphetamine and failure to comply with probation. He was ultimately given a 45-day sentence for mischief and breaching probation but was released because of time served in pretrial custody.
Maurice was also charged, with aggravated assault, pointing a firearm and careless use of a firearm. He became a icon for the rights of property owners, with dozens of people routinely showing up at court hearings in support and an online fundraising campaign exceeding its $50,000 goal.
The charges against Maurice were dropped in mid-2018 when a ballistics report supported his assertion that a ricochet bullet struck Watson and determined he had committed no crime.
Trespasser sues for 'emotional upset'
But that wasn't the end of the saga.
In September 2019, Watson filed a $100,000 statement of claim stating he has suffered "emotional upset, severe fatigue and insomnia."
He also claimed special damages including loss of income "in an amount to be proven at court."
In October, Maurice filed a statement of defence against Watson's claim and a counterclaim of $150,000.
Maurice's statement of defence denied any liability for damages described in Watson's claim and his counterclaim said he was seeking damages for "mental distress, stress, anxiety and nightmares," for himself and his oldest daughter.
The landowner's counterclaim alleged Maurice's wife, Jessica, needed counselling and suffered a miscarriage and his family continued to suffer mental stress. Maurice also sought wages lost while fighting criminal charges in court.
New Alberta law 'key' in lawsuit being dropped
The lawyers for both Maurice and Watson said new Alberta legislation was a key factor leading to Watson's lawsuit being dropped.
The United Conservative Party government's Bill 27 — passed last November as the Trespass Statutes (Protecting Law-abiding Property Owners) Act — increased protection for property owners from getting sued if they injured trespassers on their property, as well as increasing fines for trespassing and other measures.
It is an amendment to the Occupiers Liability Act, which has long been in place in Alberta.
Watson's lawyer, Devin Frank, said Thursday that the terms in the legislation wouldn't make it possible to get the facts "properly aired" in court.
Frank said the case would have been risky in terms of costs for Watson to continue pursuing it.
"If (Watson) brought a suit under this legislation, it would likely fail," Frank said, adding Watson could have even ended up paying for Maurice's legal fees.
Frank said the bill makes it so the homeowner can't have a civil case brought against them unless they have been criminally prosecuted — which Maurice was not.
Scott Chimuk, Maurice's lawyer, said legislation played a "key" role in the case.
"We won," Chimuk said, adding the arguments and application for dismissal was done behind closed doors.
The claim against Maurice cannot be revived, he said.
Lasting impact on Maurice family
Meanwhile, the Maurice family opted to drop their counterclaim.
"Finally, we can just move on," Maurice said.
However, he added the case has affected his whole family, including his children. He said they'll never fully go back to normal, especially with the attention the case has garnered that might follow them for the long term online.
He said he hopes Alberta's Bill 27 is one day implemented federally.
His wife, Jessica Maurice, said the family will continue to be advocates for landowners who defend their properties.
"We saw this from the beginning as an opportunity to make change because we knew it was a hot-button issue and a big topic for a lot of rural Albertans (and) Canadians," she said.
The shooting on the Maurices' property occurred weeks after a Saskatchewan farmer, Gerald Stanley, was found not guilty of second-degree murder for killing a young Indigenous man, Colten Boushie, who had driven onto his property with a group of friends.
Maurice's case, like the Saskatchewan one before it, became a flash point in the ongoing debate around rural landowners' rights to defend their property and with what level of force, amid a rising tide of rural crime in the prairie provinces.
The Saskatchewan case also heightened tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations in many parts of the country.
- Watch Maurice and his wife respond to the news of the dropped case
With files from Colleen Underwood