An adventure park has lost an appeal after being ordered to pay $12 million in damages to homeowners following the Port Hills fires in 2017.
The fire, which was lit by an arsonist near the boundary of the Christchurch Adventure Park (CAP), burned through nearly 2000 hectares of forestry, 11 homes and caused a significant amount of property damage for dozens of homeowners.
It resulted in a large-scale firefighting effort over several days.
In 2021, High Court Justice David Gendall ruled that while CAP, owned and operated by Leisure Investments NZ Limited Partnership, didn’t start the blaze it was liable for the spread of the fire and ordered the company to pay the owners of 80 damaged homes a total of $12m.
CAP appealed the ruling last year and argued it had no idea its chairlift was a potential fire risk and could contribute to the spread of the blaze.
It disputed liability for damages in the Court of Appeal, claiming they weren’t properly informed of the risks by the chairlift company, Doppelmayr.
However, today, the Court of Appeal dismissed the challenge and said Justice Gendall did not err by awarding damages.
In the High Court decision, Justice Gendall found “a reasonable operator” would have appreciated plastic on the chairlift could melt and spread the fire and would have removed the chairs from the rope.
CAP also failed to remove pine slash which was under the chairlift – in breach of the park’s fire safety management plan – and didn’t take away highly flammable mats which were around the chairlift, Justice Gendall found.
Legal counsel for the park challenged these findings, saying: “What happened was an entirely unforeseen and unprecedented event.”
But the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal because the park knew most of its chairlift ran through pine forests, next to housing, and knew there was a possibility the fire could spread there.
The court said CAP was aware the chairs on the lift were coated in plastic, which could melt in the event of a fire, and there was dry slash under the chairlift at a time of increased risk of fires on the hills.
“The fact Mr Johnstone [CAP’s operations manager] did not advert to the possibility of running the haul rope without the chairs or delayed taking that action because there was no such instruction in the Doppelmayr manual and/or the chairs were not easily able to be removed … is no answer,” the court said.
“Further, while the chairs were not easily removed, it was by no means impossible as evidenced by the fact that a significant number of chairs were able to be removed in just a four hour period on [the third day of the fire].”
The court agreed with counsel for the homeowners, who argued there was enough time for the park to remove the chairs and prevent the loss of his clients’ homes.
The court said a reasonable operator would have removed the chairs from the lift a day earlier – when the fire was reported to be on the park’s boundary but under control.
The court believed the risk the fire could spread to the chairlift was evident on the evening when the fire first started.
“That risk … should have been appreciated by Leisure Investments given the inherently unpredictable nature of major forest fires.”