litigation

Bell loses class-action case over 911 fees in North

The Globe and Mail

Bell argued in its statement of defence that it has charged various fees, or no 911 fees at all, in different contracts with its customers over time. (Shaun Best/Reuters)

Bell Mobility Inc. is liable to thousands of subscribers in Canada’s North who were charged for 911 service on their cellphone bills but unable to dial the number in an emergency, a Northwest Territories judge has ruled.

The wireless carrier faced a trial in March in Yellowknife in the case, the first class-action lawsuit to go to trial in Northwest Territories.

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The first stage of the proceedings was meant to determine if the wireless carrier was liable; the amount it owes in damages is to be determined at a second stage of the trial. Lawyers for the plaintiffs initially estimated potential damages at between $1-million and $3-million.

The lawsuit was filed in 2007 on behalf of the approximately 30,000 Bell Mobility customers in Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon (except for Whitehorse, which has a 911 service) and alleged that Bell unfairly charged them for a service they could not use.

In his decision released Friday, Justice Ron Veal of the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories ruled that Bell was liable, but denied a request for extra punitive damages in the case.

Bell argued in its statement of defence that it has charged various fees, or no 911 fees at all, in different contracts with its customers over time. It argues that 911 fees were simply meant to cover the costs of the network that would enable a 911 system, and that Bell is not responsible for whether municipalities decide to set up 911 services, something over which it has no control.

The lawsuit was filed by Yellowknife residents James and Samuel Anderson, who took issue with the 75 cents a month, or $9 a year, they had to pay Bell Mobility for 911 service, despite living in a place where local governments had not set up a 911 system.

The plaintiffs' lawyers said the win comes after more than five years of legal wrangling.

"It was a David and Goliath struggle in which the consumers have won an important victory," said Keith Landy, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, in an e-mail.

Bell spokesman Jason Laszlo said the company was pleased the decision affirmed that Bell was not itself required to provide 911 operators. But he said the company would appeal the decision on the question of whether some customers should be exempt from paying fees charged to others across the country.

"We are pleased the court ruled in our favour on the main issues certified for trial, and found that Bell Mobility is not required to provide live 911 operators," Mr. Laszlo said in an e-mail. "That is the responsibility of local governments."