Wrong to link Dziekanski's death to alcoholism, inquiry hears

The pathologist who examined Robert Dziekanski's body erred by suggesting alcoholism played a role in the Polish immigrant's 2007 death at Vancouver airport, a public inquiry heard Wednesday.
Forensic pathologist John Butt says he doesn't entirely agree with the autopsy report on the death of Robert Dziekanski. ((CBC))

The pathologist who examined Robert Dziekanski's body erred by suggesting alcoholism played a role in the Polish immigrant's 2007 death at Vancouver airport, a public inquiry heard Wednesday.

The autopsy report by Charles Lee declared Dziekanski's heart showed signs of chronic alcohol abuse, making him more susceptible to sudden death.

Lee testified earlier this week Dziekanski also had a fatty liver and an atrophied part of the brain, evidence of chronic alcohol use.

But John Butt, a forensic pathologist with more than 40 years' experience who reviewed Lee's autopsy report, testified Wednesday it is wrong to have concluded alcoholism weakened Dziekanski's heart. Dziekanski died on Oct. 14, 2007, after a confrontation at the airport with four RCMP officers in which they discharged a Taser stun gun at him five times.

"On the basis of the evidence you reviewed, did you see anything about his heart that put him at increased risk for sudden cardiac event?" inquiry lawyer Patrick McGowan asked Butt.

"I did not," said Butt, who has served as chief medical examiner in Alberta and Nova Scotia and conducted more than 8,000 autopsies.

Butt said Dziekanski's liver and brain showed classic signs of alcoholism, but his heart didn't appear to be affected.

"I just don't agree with that. I don't think there is alcoholic heart disease, so I don't think that it has any role" in Dziekanski's death, Butt said.

The Mounties were called to Vancouver airport after Dziekanski's behaviour turned unruly in the early hours of Oct. 14, 2007. They stunned him with a Taser within seconds of arriving, and he died shortly after. (Paul Pritchard)

Butt agreed with the autopsy's finding that Dziekanski's cause of death could be described as "sudden death during restraint."

But he criticized the autopsy report for the lack of a clear statement that a Taser was used on Dziekanski before he died.

"It's enormously relevant to the events in this case, so it needs to have some explanation, and I don't know how it's not there in the context of the circumstances," Butt said.

Lee testified earlier that when he conducted the autopsy, he wasn't told by the Mounties that Dziekanski had been stunned by a Taser as many as five times. He added that had he been given the information, it would not have "ultimately changed my final cause of death."

Butt said Wednesday that he couldn't determine whether the Taser was relevant to the precise cause of death, which he agreed is unknown, but that he believes the death could have been avoided.

He said the stress of Dziekanski's agitation, the multiple Taser stuns and being restrained by police on the airport floor likely contributed to his heart stopping.

"Is it fair to say that, in your opinion, had Mr. Dziekanski not been Tasered, not been restrained on the floor, that he would still be alive today?" asked Walter Kosteckyj, the lawyer for Dziekanski's mother.

"I suspect that, yes," Butt replied.

"Is that a strong opinion?" Kosteckyj asked.

"Yes," Butt replied.

A lawyer for the federal government told the inquiry Dziekanski might have been on heart medication. However, Butt said there was no indication of that in his medical records, including from a mandatory health exam required to immigrate to Canada.

Dziekanski spent about 10 hours wandering Vancouver airport after arriving on a flight from Poland. He died following his confrontation with the four Mounties, all of whom were summoned after he became agitated.

The provincial inquiry was called in the wake of his death and is being overseen by Thomas Braidwood, a retired B.C. Court of Appeal justice. Braidwood will make recommendations to prevent similar incidents, and he could make findings of misconduct against the officers or anyone else involved.

With files from The Canadian Press