Now, a short cautionary tale: if you are crab fishing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and your gear snags a mysterious underwater cable, don’t just cut the cable to get your gear free.
It could cost you a heck of a lot of money. And your insurance probably won’t cover any of it.
Wednesday, the Supreme Court of Canada issued its ruling in a case known as Peracomo Inc. vs. TELUS Communications Co. — it’s a case that has been running for nine years now.
Here’s how one justice of the Supreme Court described what happened: “The appellant, Réal Vallée, fishes for crab in an area of the St. Lawrence River know as Zone 17, near Baie-Comeau, Que. He had been fishing for about 50 years, starting when he was just 15. In 2005 and 2006, he operated the fishing boat Realice which he owns through his company, Peracomo Inc. While in his boat, he took an electric saw and cut a fibre-optic submarine cable that he raised to the surface after it had become entangled with his fishing gear. Mr. Vallée knew he was cutting a cable and had (acknowledged) the risk that it could be in use. However, he formed the belief that it was not. His belief was based on a handwritten note on some sort of map that he had seen for a few seconds the year before on a museum wall. This belief was wrong. The cable was live. The result was almost $1 million in damage.”
As the trial judge put it, “Mr. Vallée is a good man who did a very stupid thing.”
And then he did it again, snagging the cable again later and cutting it again.
The argument that’s been going on in court has been over whether marine legislation limited Peracomo’s — and Vallée’s — liability to $500,000, and whether Vallée’s insurance company was responsible for covering the costs of the damage. Lower levels of the courts had determined that Vallée bore a responsibility for knowing that the cable was there (the judge found that Vallée had no charts for Zone 17 while he was fishing there, and charts indicated the cable’s existence) and that the cable company was not at fault because it hadn’t buried the cable, known as Sunoque I.
Sunoque I runs across the St. Lawrence and replaced a series of microwave communication towers in 1999.
But back to the courts: you can win and you can lose at the same time.
The Supreme Court did limit the amount of damages to $500,000 under the “Convention on limitation of liability for marine claims,” but it also released the insurance company from liability, saying that if you haul a cable from the deep and cut it without finding out what you’re cutting, you can hardly class the incident as an accident.
All in all, with legal fees, $500,000 in damages, interest and everything else, it’s an expensive catch.
Even good people can do stupid things.