District named in sexual assault civil suit

The District of Fort St. James has been named in a civil suit stemming from alleged sexual assaults by former fire chief.

The District of Fort St. James has been named in a civil suit stemming from the alleged sexual assaults of three female volunteer firefighters by former fire chief Rob Bennett.

The notice of civil claim for the suit details the alleged harassment and assaults the women experienced as members of the Fort St. James Volunteer Fire Department while Bennett was fire chief.

The three plaintiffs Kirstin Rudolph, Lisa Button, and Joy Reierson have filed the notice of claim, which states: “Between 2005 and 2013, Bennett, while acting as the district’s fire chief, sexually assaulted and sexually harassed each of the plaintiffs while the plaintiffs were engaged in activities directly and indirectly related to their duties as volunteer fire fighters for the district.”

The claim details graphic specifics of the assaults on the women.

The account of the alleged assaults on Rudolph by Bennett specifies grabbing parts of her body and repeated verbal sexual harassment until 2013 and specifically, “on or about the 18 of July 2013, pulling her hair and grabbing her breasts while making sexually harassing and lewd statements.”

The account of the alleged sexual assaults and harassment upon Button by Bennett also described graphic touching of her body. The incidents allegedly occurred between 2006 and 2011 and “repeated verbal sexual harassment until 2011.”

The suit alleges on April 4, 2013 Bennett exposed himself and “forcibly detained Reierson and attempted to engage in sexual intercourse with her.”

The three plaintiffs say in the claim they have sustained damages including: fear, anxiety and depression; personality changes; adverse impact on their relationships to spouses, family and friends; avoidance of appearing for volunteer firefighting assignments, and; insomnia.

The claim further alleges that during most or all of the incidents Bennett was “visibly either moderately or heavily intoxicated by alcohol which was facilitated by the district knowingly allowing him to maintain alcohol on the fire department premises.”

The statement claims “up until his resignation, the district knew or ought to have known that Bennett had instilled an atmosphere of fear amongst its female volunteer firefighters, who believed reporting his conduct would lead to recrimination and jeopardize their prospects for advancement and to earn income from the district as volunteers.”

The suit then goes on to say the district should have known Bennett was unfit to perform his duties, because the district had to appoint a driver for him as a result of his driver’s licence suspension and there were reportedly other complaints involving consuming alcohol while operating district vehicles, even allegedly arriving at fire scenes.

“Given the conduct of Bennett, the district knew or ought to have known that Bennett was likely engaged in sexual misconduct toward female volunteer firefighters in addition to such misconduct being actually witnessed by, and directly and indirectly, reported to the district by other volunteer firefighters.”

The claim further states the “district is vicariously responsible for the acts of its fire chief towards the plaintiff and is liable in damages.”

The three plaintiffs are seeking damages from the defendants but the specifics have not yet been determined.

The District of Fort St. James was served papers on Dec. 5 and has until Dec. 26 to respond to the suit.

It is unconfirmed whether Bennett, who is also named and currently stands criminally charged with three counts of sexual assault, has been formally served. He is scheduled to appear again in court in relation to these charges on Jan. 20, 2014.

Jon Duncan, the lawyer for the three women, was requesting permission from his clients before speaking to the press.

Kevin Crook, chief administrative officer for the District of Fort St. James said the district can not comment on the matter as it is before the courts except to say: “It is an unfortunate situation and we hope it will be resolved quickly.”

Requests for comment by The Courier to Rob Bennett were not immediately returned.