Beyond the Headlines

It's their right to sue, but is it the right thing to do?

Posted: Jun 27, 2012 10:59 AM ET Last Updated: Jun 27, 2012 10:59 AM ET
(Roseway Hospital, Shelburne)

It sure didn't take long to get the lawyers involved.
 
Less than a week after the South West Nova District Health Authority revealed that a rogue employee had accessed more than 700 patient files without authorization, a Halifax law firm launched a class-action lawsuit. The firm already has two lead clients and it's looking to sign up dozens more.
 
According to the statement of claim the clients suffered "distress, humiliation and anguish" over the breach of privacy.
 
Really?
 
Are we seriously looking at a massive lawsuit that could cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars simply because a nosy employee poked around in some files?
 
Civil lawsuits have a long history of keeping corporations and institutions accountable for their actions. If a company knowingly puts out a product that harms or kills people, or if a company willfully ignores health and safety rules and someone dies, they should be sued. If their "victims" suffer real and demonstrable injury that results in loss of income or future earnings, they deserve to be compensated.
 
But what is to be gained from this lawsuit (and another legal action the firm as initiated against Capital Health for a similar breach of privacy)?
 
All health authorities in Nova Scotia already have strict rules forbidding employees from accessing patient files without authorization. Upon discovering the breaches, both Capital Health and South West Nova notified the affected patients and apologized. Both initiated reviews of their protocols to try to prevent future breaches of privacy (although in this digital age it could be virtually impossible to stop someone who really wants to snoop). 
 
South West Nova fired its employee, the one at Capital Health resigned. The message to other employees is clear: if you poke around where you aren't supposed to, you will lose your job.
 
It's no doubt disconcerting to find out someone had a look at  your personal medical file for no legitimate reason, but let's face it: no one died, no one suffered disabling injuries.
 
You have to wonder then if the motive for these lawsuits are justice and accountability, or the chance to win a lottery-sized settlement.
 
Win or lose, these legal actions will cost taxpayers plenty.
 
If these cases drag out for months and even years, which is often the case, lawyers for both sides will rack up tens of thousands of dollars in bills. To prepare their defense, staff at the health authorities will spend countless hours reviewing files, preparing documents and meeting with lawyers; time that could be spent improving patient care. And if the health authorities lose, taxpayers will foot the bill.
 
The people whose privacy was breached certainly have the right to launch legal action.

But that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.
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About the Author

Brian DuBreuil is a veteran journalist with CBC News. He has won two Gemini awards for his work, and neither involved dancing or singing on a reality show.

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