A social media war of words has been escalating on labor relations at Sunshine Village Resort. The firing of four long-time Sunshine employees after a ski patroller caught the owner's son skiing in a closed area prompted a lawsuit and sparked the debate.

A Facebook page connected with a website to support the fired Sunshine ski patrol employees topped 1.2 million post views by Thursday, Feb. 10. It has drawn in readers commenting from Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and European countries.

The social media frenzy about the firing of Sunshine's employees boiled to the point where the resort suspended its Facebook page. "The discussion became quite uncivilized with lots of swearing and personal attacks," Doug Firby, spokesperson for the resort, told OnTheSnow. A second Facebook page brandishing Sunshine's logo is drawing stormy comment on the labor issues, but Firby said that it is not overseen by the resort.

The heated controversy in social media forums swirls around a series of events that have ended up in a lawsuit of wrongful dismissal against Sunshine Village and Thomas Taylor Scurfield, son of the resort's owner and president Ralph D. Scurfield. The suit was filed Jan. 26 in the Court of Queen's Bench in Calgary, according to the Calgary Herald on Jan. 29.

The Herald described the allegations in court documents against the owner's son: "On Dec. 17, the younger Scurfield was caught in a closed area with four other skiers and acted aggressively. According to the allegations in the statement of claim, Scurfield said he has the right to ski wherever he liked, that the closures didn't apply to him because of his family connections, that the area should not have been closed, that patrollers should know who he was and that the patrollers would 'pay' for their actions."

The dismissal of four employees due to Scurfield's statements and actions followed on Dec. 29, according to the Herald's summary of the court documents.

The four terminated employees worked for Sunshine in senior positions. Three served as the mountain operations manager, snow safety supervisor, and supervisor of lift operations. The fourth was a senior member of the ski patrol. The mountain operations manager had worked at Sunshine for 30 years and the snow safety supervisor for 25 years.

The website to support Sunshine Village Ski Patrol said they "were terminated without warning, and with no just cause, escorted off of the hill into the waiting cabs and sent home."

Documents for the lawsuit were filed with the courts, but the resort has not yet been served with papers. Firby confirmed that the resort will respond to the lawsuit after it receives the papers.

"Our plan is to file a statement of defense in a few weeks," he explained. "It will lay out the reasons for the dismissals. The reasons are different than the speculation in the blogs, but I can't comment now on personnel issues due to privacy laws."

The four fired employees hired Andrew Robertson of Macleod Dixon to represent them in suing for more than $400,000 in lost pay and benefits. Robertson's expertise is in civil litigation, with experience in employment law and dismissals.

"It's the usual damages in a wrongful dismissal case," Robertson told Angela Kokott Jan. 31 on Calgary Today, AM 770 CHQR. "They have not been paid any severance pay, just escorted off the hill... After someone has been there 30 years, they're entitled to a fair bit of reasonable bonus at the termination of their employment."

The controversy feeding the social media debate also compounded in late January with three more dismissals of ski patrollers, prompting more discussion of safety. The Ski Patrol Support website and a series of stories in the Calgary Herald said that the patroller who caught the owner's son and his friends in the closed area was laid off Jan. 18. Twelve ski patrollers called in "sick" the next day in protest, forcing the resort to run only three lifts for the day. Two patrollers acting as spokesmen for the protest were dismissed Jan. 20.

The Sunshine Village Ski Patrol Support Site is selling T-shirts to help raise money for the lawsuit.

The shortage of staff caused the resort to seek to fill two Ski Patrol/Avalanche Control positions. The positions were posted on its website Jan 28 and were still listed as of Feb. 11.

Sunshine also plans to re-establish its Facebook page. "We plan to bring it back in the next few days," said Firby. "We're also going to establish a moderated blog where people can say whatever they want to as long as it's in a reasonably civilized fashion."