Princeton’s historic caboose rolled back into court last Thursday, with the Vermilion Trails Society and the Town of Princeton facing each other before a provincial court judge.
The society, represented by past president Leona Guerster, was seeking permission to lower its claim against the municipality and schedule a trial in small claims court.
Judge Greg Koturbash adjourned the session without making a ruling, after suggesting the VTS seek legal advice.
“The trails society is seeking a declaration that it owns the caboose. The provincial court cannot make that kind of order. We don’t have the jurisdiction to make that kind of order.”
In May 2016 the Town of Princeton moved the caboose from its home along the KVR, at the intersection of Bridge Street and Highway 3, to its present location behind Subway.
A year later the VTS accused the council of train robbery, complained to the RCMP and then filed a $35,000 lawsuit against the municipality.
At the time both the town and the VTS said they could prove ownership of the artifact, which has been located at various places in Princeton over the years including at the fairgrounds, downtown and at the museum.
The original lawsuit sought $6,608 for damages caused to its fence when the caboose was moved, $20 for a lock and $28,371 for unspecified damages to the rail car.
That claim also estimated the caboose’s value at $60,000.
Two settlement conferences were held in 2017, without resolution.
Guerster told the judge she believed from previous court sessions that the society’s estimate of the caboose’s value was prohibiting the issue from going forward in small claims, and forcing the case to Supreme Court.
Small claims has an award limit of $35,000.
While she said the VTS is willing to adjust its value estimate to reflect the car’s current condition and keep the case in a lower court, Koturbash indicated a declaration of value cannot be made at that level.
Matthew Voell, a Vancouver lawyer representing the town and appear by phone, called the declaration of ownership “a live issue and a key issue.”
He said if the society drops its request for the declaration it could proceed with seeking damages for the fence and the lock itemized in the original suit.
“But we own the caboose. We have the documentation and the evidence,” said Guerster.
Guerster said the society wants a further settlement conference with the municipality, owing to the fact that town council representation has changed since the original suit was filed.
Guerster ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2018.
“We are requesting another because we now have a new council…three council members who have a history with the caboose in 2009 [when the VTS says it purchased the rail car from the Princeton Exhibition Association.]
She said Mayor Spencer Coyne, and councillors George Elliott and Randy McLean all have knowledge of the caboose.
Voell interjected to say that members of council would be unlikely to appear at any settlement conference, and the town would be represented by “legal counsel with one person to instruct…Even if there would be councillors at the settlement conference though, members would not speak.”
Koturbash urged the VTS to contact a lawyer.
“It does take some time to get a trial in provincial court and by the time you get there and prepare you might find yourself in the wrong place.”
Following the hearing Guerster told The Spotlight the society would seek legal advice.
She said it is questionable whether the non-profit group could finance a case in Supreme Court.
“VTS is a volunteer group. We don’t have millions in the bank.”
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