UPDATED: District served with class action lawsuit

The District of Mission has been served with a class action lawsuit from a group of residents who claim their rights were violated when their properties were searched as suspected marijuana grow-ops.

The suit was filed in Chilliwack provincial court last Thursday, and by law the owners of the 499 properties inspected are automatically in the class action unless they opt out.

Financially, according to the plaintiff’s lawyer, the damages could skyrocket into millions of dollars.

The district’s deputy chief administrative officer, Paul Gipps, confirmed Monday they were served late last week and the documents have been forwarded to the district’s lawyers.

“We have 21 days [to respond] as of Friday,” he said, adding he couldn’t comment until it has been reviewed by lawyers.

The lawsuit is based on the highly controversial Public Safety Inspection Team (PSIT), a program that started in April 2008 and inspected 499 properties based on electricity usage and RCMP surveillance before being put on indefinite review this January.

One of the plaintiffs, Stacy Gowanlock, said he’s spoken to in excess of 300 people interested in joining the lawsuit, adding he doesn’t expect the district to back down.

Gowanlock said the district is “between a rock and a hard place” because it has said the program had flaws and apologized to the public, so it will be difficult to argue in court the municipality did the right thing.

Mayor James Atebe has publicly apologized for the 216 homes that were inspected and were found not to be controlled substance properties, including a personal apology for 15 residences that were initially levied fines before being overturned in a review based on insufficient evidence.

The district voted June 27 to draft a letter of apology that will be mailed to each of the inspected homes.

Once the district submits its statement of defence, barring any settlement out of court, the plaintiffs would have to be granted certification by the court to proceed to a civil trial.

It could take between six and 12 months to reach a certification hearing, said a lawyer for the plaintiffs, Alexander Markham-Zantvoort, adding defendants generally look to settle if a trial is granted by the court.

“I’m not saying it’s going to settle in this case. It may not,” he said.

Each of the 499 households affected by a PSIT inspection will be able to claim basic damages for trespassing and privacy, which Markham-Zantvoort said would likely be some nominal amount of between $5,000 and $10,000. Added to that would be any additional damages as a result of the inspections, which might be upwards of $100,000 per household.

The lawsuit has the support of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which has publicly stated the aim is to compensate those hurt by the program and help protect the rights of residents in all municipalities with similar bylaws.

“In this class action these are people who had no grow-ops and yet they were fined,” said policy director Michael Vonn.

Whether the district compensates homeowners or fights a lengthy court challenge, it will end up costing taxpayers, said Gowanlock.

He said the three-year battle with the district to get them to acknowledge their concerns only began when they threatened a lawsuit.

“It’s a little too late.”

When the district refused to grant residents an appeal process, Gowanlock said the only remaining appeal was the lawsuit itself.