Christchurch Adventure Park loses appeal of $12 million court-ordered damages after fire in Port Hills

An adventure park has lost an appeal after it was ordered to pay $12 million in damages to homeowners following the 2017 Port Hills fires.

The fire, which was started by an arsonist near the boundary of the Christchurch Adventure Park (CAP), burned nearly 2,000 acres of woodland, 11 homes and caused a significant amount of property damage to dozens of homeowners.

It resulted in a large-scale firefighting for several days.

In 2021 High Court Judge David Gendall ruled that while CAP, owned and operated by Leisure Investments NZ Limited Partnership, did not cause the fire, it was liable for the fire’s spread and ordered the company to pay the owners of 80 damaged homes . a total of 12 million dollars.

CAP appealed the ruling last year, arguing it had no idea its chairlift posed a potential fire risk and could contribute to the spread of the blaze.

It challenged liability for damages in the Court of Appeal, claiming they had not been properly informed of the risks by the Doppelmayr chairlift company.

Today, however, the Court of Appeal rejected the challenge, saying Judge Gendall had made no mistake in awarding damages.

In the Supreme Court ruling, Judge Gendall ruled that “a reasonable operator” would have appreciated that plastic on the chairlift could melt and spread the fire and lift the seats off the rope.

CAP also failed to remove pine wood from under the chairlift — in violation of the park’s fire safety plan — and failed to remove highly flammable mats that were located around the chairlift, Judge Gendall found.

The park’s legal adviser disputed these findings, saying, “What happened was a completely unforeseen and unprecedented occurrence.”

But the appeals court rejected the appeal because the park knew that most of its chairlift ran through pine forests, next to residences, and knew there was a possibility the fire could spread there.

The court said CAP knew the seats on the lift were covered in plastic, which could melt in the event of a fire, and that there was a dry streak under the chairlift at a time of heightened fire risk on the hills.

‘The fact, Mr Johnstone [CAP’s operations manager] did not advertise the ability to run the traction cable without the seats or delayed taking that action because there was no such instruction in the Doppelmayr manual and/or the seats could not be easily removed … is not an answer ,” the court said.

“Further, while the seats were not easy to remove, it was by no means impossible, as evidenced by the fact that a significant number of seats could be removed in just four hours.” [the third day of the fire].”

The court agreed with the homeowners’ counsel, who argued there was enough time for the park to remove the chairs and prevent the loss of its clients’ homes.

The court said a reasonable operator would have removed the chairs from the lift a day early – when the fire was reportedly on the park’s boundary but under control.

The court held that the risk that the fire could spread to the chairlift was evident the night the fire first started.

“That risk … should have been valued by Leisure Investments, given the inherently unpredictable nature of large wildfires.”