Target of 20-year-old lawsuit launched after school fire wants it dropped

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A Yellowknife-based architecture and engineering company the NWT government blames for the destruction of a Pangnirtung school in the 1990s is asking the case be dismissed due to what it calls an “inordinate delay” in bringing the case to trial.

The lawsuit, which began nearly 20 years ago, arises from a March 1997 fire that consumed the Attagoyuk School in Pangnirtung.

Pangnirtung was located in the Northwest Territories at the time but is now part of Nunavut.

A March 1997 fire consumed the Attagoyuk School in Pangnirtung. Wikipedia photo
A March 1997 fire consumed the Attagoyuk School in Pangnirtung. Wikipedia photo

According to the statement of claim from 1999, the GNWT entered an agreement with Ferguson Simek Clark Architects and Engineers, or FSC, in 1995 for the group to design a three-part renovation at the Attagoyuk School.

The company was contracted to prepare design drawings, construction contract documents and ensure building codes were met.

But just as the second phase of renovations was coming to a close on March 9, 1997, a fire engulfed the school, burning it completely to the ground.

While the school had a fire suppression system at the time that included sprinklers, the GNWT claims it didn’t work, leaving the entire school to be consumed by flames.

The GNWT argues the fire and loss of the school was caused or contributed to by the negligence of the defendants, which includes FSC, engineers, architects and employees working on the renovations, according to the statement of claim.

Also named in the lawsuit as a third party is Ninety North Construction and Development Ltd. The GNWT and the minister of Public Works and Services are also listed as a fourth party. Cabinet spokesperson Andrew Livingstone did not respond to a question asking why the GNWT is named in the lawsuit as both plaintiff and a defendant.

The GNWT is seeking $13 million in damages as a result of the loss of the school, plus interest, which has grown to about $11.5 million.

The National Fire Protection Association conducted a five-day investigation of the fire, which it said started in an unsprinklered “combustible void space” over a fan room.

“The most significant contributing factor to this loss was the lack of complete sprinkler protection throughout the building,” the association’s report states.

But the defendants now argue the case has taken too long and say an NWT Supreme Court judge should toss it.

“There have been multiple periods where no significant steps have advanced the matter,” a document filed to the courts in April states.

It claims witnesses’ memories have faded drastically over the 20 years since the fire.

The defendants have been left to rely on documents, which they argue may not all be available anymore.

“It’s gone on and on … and here we are 17 years later,” said James Thorlakson, counsel for the defendants, at a court hearing in Yellowknife earlier this month. “Enough is enough is our response.”

However, the GNWT’s lawyer, Gary Holan, argued the defendants are responsible for the delay.

He said they waited too long to interview witnesses in the case. Holan said the GNWT pulled “every record they had” and questioned the design and construction of the school building.

FSC is still a registered company, according to lawyer Dennis Picco, even though it was bought out by global giant Stantec in 2011. Stantec is not named in the lawsuit.

A decision has yet to be made in the case.