Edmonton

Former chief medical examiner's wrongful dismissal trial halted amid defamation threat

Dr. Anny Sauvageau's wrongful dismissal civil trial stopped abruptly on Friday morning after her lawyer revealed his client has been threatened with defamation by a former justice minister over her sworn testimony.

Judge calls former Alberta justice minister's threat to sue ‘unprecedented’

Dr. Anny Sauvageau says she's afraid to continue testifying at her wrongful dismissal trial after being threatened with possible defamation for her sworn testimony. (CBC)

A civil trial launched by former Alberta chief medical examiner Dr. Anny Sauvageau screeched to a halt Friday after former provincial justice minister Jonathan Denis threatened to sue Sauvageau for defamation based on her sworn testimony to date.

Sauvageau was the province's top forensic pathologist from mid-2011 until she was notified in late 2014 that her contract would not be renewed the next year.

The trial began last Friday. Sauvageau is suing the province for $7.6 million in damages for loss of income and benefits. An earlier version of the suit named Denis as a defendant in his capacity as justice minister, but his name was dropped from it after he resigned from politics in 2015.

Sauvageau's lawyer, Allan Garber, told court Friday morning that on Thursday night he received an emailed letter from Calgary lawyer Kyle Shewchuk, representing Denis. Shewchuk is a lawyer at Calgary-based Guardian Law Group, where Denis is a founding partner.

Garber read portions of the letter aloud in court. CBC News has obtained a copy of the letter.

"Your client…has engaged in a seven-year campaign of defamation and harassment as against Mr. Denis," the letter states. "We have been closely watching Dr. Sauvageau's current trial and are aware that … Dr. Sauvageau's defamation of Mr. Denis has continued unabated."

It continued: "Mr. Denis is a respected and renowned lawyer and business person and will not tolerate these tortious actions against him. These actions must forthwith cease and we reserve the right to refer to this correspondence should Dr. Sauvageau's defamation continue."

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Doreen Sulyma told court she has never seen anything like the letter in her 25 years on the bench and 25 years in private legal practice.

Sulyma said the letter is "unprecedented." The judge asked Garber to file an order directing Denis and his lawyer to appear before her in person on Monday afternoon.

The letter says Guardian Law Group is investigating defamation action against Sauvageau and plans to order transcripts from the court case.

"We look forward to hearing from you and trust you will advise your client to govern herself accordingly," the letter states. 

Sauvageau did not return to the witness stand Friday.

'Fearful' to testify

Sauvageau filed an affidavit with the court Friday in response to the letter from the law firm representing Denis. 

In it, she insisted she has never defamed Denis, but said the warning has had a chilling effect.

She said she remains fearful to give evidence in the trial even though her lawyer has told her she's protected because her sworn testimony is privileged.

"I cannot afford to defend a defamation lawsuit," Sauvageau wrote.

Jonathan Denis served as Alberta justice minister from 2012 to 2015. (CBC)

"I am still afraid that I might be sued by Jonathan Denis, Q.C.," Sauvageau said in the letter. "The financial consequences of a lawsuit frighten me especially since I do not have a job." 

Sauvageau's lawyer described the letter from the lawyer representing Denis as an improper threat. 

"This isn't coming from somebody who may not know about the integrity of trials and the importance of not badgering or harassing witnesses," Garber said. 

"This comes from the former minister of justice … I think that's an affront to the integrity of the trial process."   

Craig Neuman, a lawyer representing the provincial government, assured the court that his clients had no knowledge or involvement with the defamation threat. 

"I know it will be obvious to the court, but I don't act for Mr. Denis," Neuman said.

'You cannot be sued' 

A University of Alberta law professor said he's surprised a lawyer and a former justice minister would make the kind of claims contained in the letter. 

"If you are a witness in a civil or a criminal trial, you cannot be sued on the basis of anything you say under oath in court," Steven Penney told CBC News. "There are no exceptions. It's existed in the law for at least 100 to 150 years. 

"And it's something that should be known by all lawyers as being a very clear rule."

Late on Friday afternoon, another lawyer hired by Denis responded to a request for comment from CBC News to say, "We disagree with the characterization by Dr. Sauvageau and her counsel regarding the April 7, 2022 letter."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston is an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who has covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca.

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