$90M settlement approved for indigenous communities hit by Manitoba floods

$90M settlement approved for indigenous communities hit by Manitoba floods
Payments to class members are tentatively expected to flow in the fall of this year, says Sabrina Lombardi of McKenzie Lake Lawyers, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the case.

Seven years after four Manitoba indigenous communities were flooded — allegedly by the Manitoba government diverting water from a river to avoid flooding in Winnipeg — a judge has approved a $90-million settlement for those impacted.

The payout settles a class action law suit on behalf of the members of the First Nations communities — Pinaymootang First Nation, Lake St. Martin, Little Saskatchewan and Dauphin River — forced to flee their homes because of flooding in 2011.

“This is a unique settlement for a very unique situation affecting a specific group of individuals,” says Sabrina Lombardi of McKenzie Lake Lawyers in London, Ont., who along with colleague Michael Peerless and Manitoba firm Troniak Law represented the plaintiffs in the class action.

She says they are very happy the court approved the settlement, which they feel is a great one for the class.

“I think it’s a fair amount, it’s a good amount — the class members here are going to receive real compensation.”

The government of Manitoba and the federal government deny any wrongdoing, but they agreed to settle the matter instead of taking it to trial. The $90,283,000, which was approved on Jan. 12 by Justice James Edmond of the Court of Queen’s Bench in Winnipeg, includes contributions toward legal fees and expenses as well as administration costs.

No admission of liability in the context of a settlement like this is completely normal, Lombardi notes, adding that “a settlement is a compromise and in a compromise there’s always trade off, and that is a very typical trade off a defendant will often get in a settlement.”

The case, which was filed in April 2012, initially came to the London firm because various members of the impacted communities in Manitoba reached out to local counsel Troniak Law, which in turn contacted now-Justice Russell Raikes, an experienced class action practitioner who at that time was with McKenzie Lake Lawyers, for help with the class action aspect of the case. When Raikes was appointed to the Superior Court of Justice, Lombardi and Peerless took over.

The action wasn’t certified when the team first went before the courts in 2014, and the next step was to seek leave to appeal, which they obtained.

“It was the Court of Appeal in Manitoba that ultimately certified the class and allowed us to continue as a group,” Lombardi says. “The court of appeal gave us that certification in January of 2017. It was intensive and ongoing negotiations basically from the time we received that certification.”

She says she is typically involved with consumer litigation such as price-fixing and pharmaceutical cases and notes this case was different. It was important to the lawyers involved, Lombardi says, adding she was “honoured to be a part of it and help these individuals in terms of resolving one small aspect of a larger problem they’ve been facing for the last seven years.”

The estimated 7,000 members of the communities at the time are eligible to make claims for disruptions payments, with a points system that takes into account the length of evacuation and the amount of time spent living in adverse conditions and whether or not the class member was a resident of the reserves or lived elsewhere in the province.

Lombardi says a rough estimate puts the payout of those adult class members most severely affected somewhere between $42,000 and $67,000. There are additional sums available through a special circumstances fund for those who faced health costs, loss of property or loss of income. However, it is unclear at the moment how many class members will come forward and, therefore, exact sums are not known at this time.

“We have had an overwhelming response in favour of this settlement,” Lombardi says. “Between ourselves and our co-counsel in Manitoba, we fielded over 500 calls from 500 different class members after they received the notice to inquire about the settlement, and they were really excited about it and wanted to know how to participate and how it would work.”  

There is a third-party claims administration that is overseeing the settlement, “so it’s going to take them some time to do the verifications they’re required to do under the terms of the settlement,” she notes.

“We expect payments will start to flow to class members some time in fall of this year, but, again, that’s a rough estimate. It could be sooner or later — really just depends on how long that verification process takes.”

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