2 families sue St. Joe's over suicide deaths, claim 'shocking and reckless disregard'

The families of two men who took their own lives while inpatients at the region’s mental health specialty hospital are suing the hospital for negligence.

Brandon Taylor, 29, died by suicide last August. Joel Verge, 42, died in November. Their families are suing

Brandon Taylor was 29 when he died at St. Joe's West 5th campus last August. His family is now suing the hospital. (Jenn Smyth)

The families of two men who took their own lives while inpatients at the region's mental health specialty hospital are suing the hospital for negligence.

The families of Joel Verge and Brandon Taylor filed lawsuits Friday in Hamilton court against St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, where both Verge and Taylor were inpatients on "suicide watch" when they died, the families claim.

Joel Verge died by suicide last November at the age of 42. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Both families allege the hospital provided or permitted their loved ones to have the means to take their own lives. They say they believed their loved ones were in the right place to get help.

And they claim the hospital, according to their lawsuits, exhibited "highhanded, shocking and reckless disregard and complete lack of care for the lives and safety of others." 

"That he wasn't better supervised, it just tears your heart out," said his dad, Carl Verge.

"They created a situation of trust and an illusion of safety, which the plaintiffs relied on," the Verge family's lawsuit states.

11 suicide deaths by St. Joe's patients in 2016 and 2017

Their deaths, both families claim, caused pain and suffering to their surviving family members. Verge had three children. Taylor was engaged to be married.

Each family is suing for $8.5 million in damages.

Taylor died last August, and Verge in November. Verge and Taylor were among three inpatients who died by suicide at St. Joe's West Fifth campus in 2016 and among 11 deaths by suicide for St. Joe's patients in under two years.

The Verge family claims the hospital should have been extra vigilant after other suicides had already happened.

Carl and Jane Verge's son Joel was 42 when he died last November. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

"They knew or ought to have known that similar incidents of suicide involving an unsafe environment and/or lack of supervision had occurred in the past and failed to take any appropriate steps to address same," their lawsuit states.

The two families have retained the same personal injury lawyer, Michael Smitiuch, who held a press conference about the lawsuits in downtown Hamilton on Monday morning.

"St Joe's failed both Brandon and Joel, failed the families, and allowed them both to have the opportunity and the means to take their own lives," Smitiuch said.

Carl Verge: 'A spotlight on the inadequacies of the system' 0:29

The hospital announced a plan this summer to make suicide a "never event."

In a statement Monday, hospital president David Higgins said suicide is a "tragedy and is profoundly distressing for all of those who are touched by it."

"We are deeply saddened by the pain and loss suffered by the families of Joel Verge and Brandon Taylor," he said. 

"There is no doubt that further research is critical to understand the complexities, risks and best treatments to prevent suicide."

The hospital commissioned two independent experts to help it review its handling of cases where suicide is a risk. (Dave Beatty/CBC)

Higgins reiterated that the hospital responded to the 2016 deaths by commissioning an external review. Some resulting recommendations were released publicly in July. He said St. Joe's has already implemented many of the review's recommendations, but did not specify which ones. 

The families are not convinced.

"We can see that they're making some recommendations but, too little too late," Carl Verge said.

Coroner's inquest requested

The hospital's action plan came amid a string of 11 suicides by inpatients and outpatients since the beginning of 2016:

In addition to Verge, Taylor and one other inpatient, the hospital said that in 2016, there had been two other inpatient suicides where the patients were out on a day pass, and four outpatient deaths where the patients had accessed some care from St. Joe's (either its West 5th or downtown campus).

Moreover, there have been two more patient suicides this year. Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath has called for a coroner's inquests into the 11 deaths.

Lawyer Michael Smitiuch is representing the families of Joel Verge and Brandon Taylor in their lawsuits against St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

'As a family, we all thought, he's in a safe place'

Verge was 42 when he died nearly a year ago, in early November.

Carl Verge said his son checked himself in to St. Joe's in late October to get some help for substance abuse and bipolar disorder.

Then he attempted suicide and ended up in intensive care. After he was sent back to West 5th, he ran away from the facility overnight in early November.

A few days later, after he turned himself back in, he killed himself.

Jenn Smyth and Stu Taylor spoke at a press conference Monday about the lawsuit they've filed against St. Joe's. Stu's son Brandon Taylor was engaged to be married to Smyth when he took his own life in August 2016. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Brandon Taylor's family thought he would get the help he needed when he was admitted involuntarily to the West 5th campus of St. Joe's hospital last summer.

"As a family, we all thought, you know, he's in a safe place, this is where he should be," said Stuart Taylor, Brandon's dad.

"I thought he was going to be at a safe place. Like anyone would. I felt a bit of relief, and like he was getting the help he needed," his fiancée, Jenn Smyth, said Monday.

Jenn Smyth: 'I thought he was going to be at a safe place' 0:11

But Brandon, 29, was in the hospital — the region's specialized mental institution — for just a few days before he took his own life.

When Smyth looked through his phone after he died, she found signs he'd been searching for ways to end his life for days, the family said.

His last Google search was done 30 minutes before he died, Smitiuch said.

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca