High court to hear case of fisherman hit with $1.2M repair bill

OTTAWA – A small-town Quebec fisherman who ended up stuck with a staggering $1.2-million repair bill after he decided to cut an underwater cable to save $250 worth of gear is getting another day in court.

The Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to hear Real Vallee’s appeal of a case which pits the crab fisherman against giants Telus and Hydro-Quebec, owners of the cable.

Lower court judges have had kind words for the self-taught mariner, but have so far refused to let him off the hook for the bill.

“Real Vallee is a good man; a decent man; an honest man – a fisherman. However he did a very stupid thing,” Federal Court Justice Sean Harrington wrote in a 2011 judgment.

A subsequent appeal court panel expressed sympathy for his plight and spoke of the “valiant efforts” of his lawyer.

But the judges also said Vallee was reckless in cutting the fibre-optic line that ran under the waters off Baie Comeau and as a result his insurance was voided, leaving him personally responsible for the repair bill.

Vallee, who now is in his 60s, has fished since he was 15. The courts were told that he had no formal training but picked his fishing grounds by experience and plotted courses for his 13-metre boat, “Realice,” by eye.

He had snagged his gear several times on something offshore before he finally hauled up a cable in 2005. He freed his equipment and let the cable go.

During the off-season, however, Vallee visited a local museum, where he saw a chart showing a line running through his fishing area with the handwritten notation “abandonne.” He concluded his underwater nemesis was fair game and when he snagged it again in June of 2006, he pulled it up and sliced through it with an electric saw.

Harrington said Vallee should have known the cable was not abandoned. It was marked on charts and in various mariner’s publications.

“I find that the cable was a navigational hazard, that it was Mr. Vallee’s duty to know of its existence and that he failed miserably in that regard,” Harrington wrote.

If Vallee had lost his gear when it was snagged on the cable, the law would have allowed him to seek restitution from the cable owners, he added.

“In this particular case, if Mr. Vallee had abandoned his anchor, the line and the buoy, his loss would have been approximately $250.”

A month after cutting the cable, Vallee heard that police were looking for the culprit. He came forward and made a voluntary statement. He was charged with committing mischief but was later acquitted.

Harrington awarded the owners $980,433.54 for the repair and pre-judgment interest of $232,886.53. Since then, interest on the total has accumulated at five per cent.

Vallee’s boat has been tied up at a wharf for years, a hostage to be sold to settle the damages.

“In the meantime,” Harrington wrote, “Mr. Vallee continues to fish. He has chartered a fishing vessel from his nephew. As he does not know how to update charts, he buys a fresh, up-to-date chart every year and then follows radio messages during the fishing season.

“He could easily have done this previously.”

The Federal Court of Appeal also sided with the cable owners. The three-justice panel, though, clearly felt sorry for Vallee.

“Despite the valiant efforts of counsel for the appellants and our panel’s sympathy for Mr. Vallee’s plight, we would dismiss the appeal,” the judgment concluded.