A Timmins, Ont., lawyer is suing his insurers for $3.4 million after they refused to pay out when his aircraft was destroyed in a crash that killed his instructor.
Personal injury lawyer Lorenzo Girones had owned the plane, a Socata TBM 700, for barely a month when it went down in woodlands near Ottawa in October 2012. The crash killed flight instructor Robert Reany, who was alone at the controls at the time of the crash.
Girones had completed four days of instruction with Reany as part of an additional training course required by his insurer, Allianz Global Risks US Insurance Co., due to his lack of experience with this particular brand of single engine turboprop with a final training day scheduled to take place the day after the crash.
Weeks later, Girones submitted a claim to Allianz but he tells Law Times he was shocked to then receive a notification from the company informing him his claim would be denied since the loss fell outside his policy’s coverage.
“I wasn’t expecting any problem at all. But if they wanted trouble, they came to the right place. Now we have a fight,” says Girones, who has since launched a claim against Allianz and another insurer, XL Insurance Co. Ltd., for breach of contract. The claim seeks damages of $3.4 million, the full value of the aircraft.
The defendants’ lawyer, Bruce Garrow of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, declined to comment while the litigation is ongoing, but his clients expressly deny any breach of the insurance contracts in a statement of defence and in fact filed their own counterclaim seeking a declaration that they’re not liable for Girones’ loss. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
According to documents filed with the Ontario Superior Court, the sticking point between the parties arises over a term of the insurance contract dictating who can fly the plane. The policy states it’s only valid if either Girones “or a pilot while providing ab initio instruction” to him is flying the aircraft.
“Ab initio instruction is composed of both ground and flight instruction,” says Girones, who has had expert reports prepared that back up his interpretation that this type of instruction need not place the student pilot in the air at all times with the training pilot.
Girones claims Reany’s fatal flight was part of his “ab initio instruction” because he had asked Reany to fly from Carp, Ont., near Ottawa to Wiarton in order to pick up a training manual needed for the next day’s lesson. Reany was then to stop over in Goderich, Ont., where Girones had a hangar, for refuelling and finally return to Carp the next day for the final day of training.
But in its denial letter, Allianz, picking up on a CBC news story immediately after the crash that quoted Reany’s wife as saying the instructor was on his way to Goderich to pick her up and bring her back to Ottawa for her first visit there, suggested the purpose of Reany’s trip had nothing to do with instruction. In their statement of defence, the defendants plead that Reany in fact made his doomed flight “for the purpose of returning to his home” in Port Elgin, Ont.
The trial is set to go ahead later this year in Girones’ hometown of Timmins, Ont., after he successfully resisted an attempt by the insurers to switch the venue to Toronto. Allianz argued Toronto would be a more suitable place to hold the trial because that was where the policy in dispute was issued, their lawyers are based there, and three of their four underwriting witnesses live there. They also pointed out that Girones owns a home in Toronto and that his law firm has a satellite office in the city.
However, in a decision released late last year, Ontario Superior Court Justice Stephen O’Neill ruled that “a transfer of the action from Timmins to Toronto is not desirable in the interests of justice.”
Noting that Girones works exclusively out of his Timmins office and that he and his spouse have lived in the city for 40 years, O’Neill said that a two-week absence from his main office while the trial proceeded elsewhere shouldn’t “be taken lightly.”
“It is true that the defendants’ representatives will incur additional inconvenience and expense. . . . But it is also important to note that it is the convenience of the parties, the witnesses, and the court to be considered, not the convenience of plaintiff’s counsel or defendants’ counsel,” O’Neill wrote.
“It was a silly motion,” Girones says. “There is absolutely no connection whatsoever to Toronto.”
A pretrial conference in November yielded no resolution, and Girones hopes to get a trial date this spring.
A spokesperson for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada said its investigation into the crash hadn’t yet concluded. Though shaken by the tragedy, Girones says the accident has had no long-term impact on his flying habits.
“It affected me for about a week but it’s been back to normal since then,” Girones says. “I’ve never actually had an accident myself.”
The personal injury lawyer has even bought a new model that’s identical to the one he lost in 2012.
“It’s a magnificent machine,” says Girones, who has 40 years of experience in the cockpit and logs about 300 flying hours every year that mostly relate to work.
“I fly every week. Although I’m based in Timmins, I take cases all over Ontario, in Montreal, even in Newfoundland. Flying is a real necessity for me.”