A routine ski patrol sweep on December 17 at Sunshine Village ski area in Banff, Alberta, has resulted in a nearly half-million dollar wrongful dismissal lawsuit and has grown into a controversy that's received international attention.
According to reports, Taylor Scurfield, son of Sunshine owner Ralph Scurfield, was caught skiing with friends in a closed area, and patrol escorted them to the base area. The violators were given their VIP passes back once at the base and let go.
A former Sunshine Village patroller told ESPN that skiing in a closed area usually results in a loss of ski pass, at least for the day. According to Sunshine's website, "People violating closures, slow skiing zones and other safety requirements may be immediately removed from the resort."
On December 29, and following alleged statements from Taylor that the ski patrollers would "pay," four senior resort safety personnel were fired from the ski resort.
In early January, the four senior employees filed a lawsuit against Sunshine Village for wrongful dismissal and against Taylor Scurfield for inducing a breach of their contracts.
Doug Firby, communications director at Sunshine, told ESPN that, "There was no direct connection between the incident of four young people being caught in a closed area in early December and the dismissals of four senior managers."
Yet according to allegations by the plaintiffs -- found in documents filed to an Alberta court -- those who were originally fired, Chris "Chevy' Chevalier (mountain operations manager), Rowan Harper (snow safety supervisor), Chris Conway (senior patrol), and Ben Chevalier (lift operations manager), lost their jobs for undisclosed reasons.
Harper was told he was fired for a clerical error -- volunteers helping prepare the ski hill for opening did not have their signatures properly witnessed on liability releases. While Ben Chevalier was told, "Blood is thicker than water," according to sources familiar with the case. The others were not given reasons.
It was alleged in the statement of claim filed with the court that the younger Scurfield was uncooperative when patroller Charlie Hitchman first discovered him in the closed area. Scurfield allegedly threatened Hitchman, saying, "Do you know who I am?" and that there would "be consequences" for his actions. Other patrollers were called to the scene, including Conway.
The elder Scurfield apparently ordered that Hitchman, the patroller, write a letter of apology. Against advice from fellow employees and fearing for his job, Hitchman wrote the letter of apology to the Scurfield family, say sources. Hitchman lost his job on January 18.
Employees staged a protest the next day, forcing the resort to close 9 out of its 12 lifts. The two spokesmen for the protest -- patrollers Craig McArthur and Jock Richardson -- lost their jobs January 20.
While no reasons for dismissal have been made public by Sunshine, Firby said, "No company would take the decision to dismiss senior staff in the middle of the season lightly ... Sunshine is not allowed by law to discuss personnel issues. Sunshine will be preparing a statement of defense in response to the statement of claim that plaintiffs have filed with the court."
The lawyer for the senior staffers has not yet received Sunshine's statement.
A former Sunshine patroller (also anonymous) told ESPN that Chris Chevalier and the others were respected, competent and well-liked by staff. "Chevy is the kind of guy who would stand up for his people and for what is right," he said. "Someone in that position at the ski hill has to be professional for the safety of everyone. You can't break the rules for special people."
A Facebook page has cropped up in support of the ski patrol, as well as a website. The ski community in Sunshine and beyond has rallied in defense of the patrollers, and locals are selling T-shirts and holding fundraisers to raise money for the dismissed employees.