Crime or accident? Winnipeg man sues former family member over death of 87-year-old mother

For years, Jim Garwood has believed that his mother’s death was not an accident. Now he’s filed a lawsuit in court seeking to hold a former family member responsible for the 87-year-old woman’s death.

Office of the Chief Medical Examiner first called death accidental but later found 'foul play may be involved'

A man with grey hair wearing glasses sits at a desk, reading a document.
Jim Garwood has filed a lawsuit alleging his mother's death in 2004 was caused by a former family member 'wilfully and intentionally' harming her. (CBC)

For years, Jim Garwood has believed that his mother's death was not an accident. Now he's filed a lawsuit in court seeking to hold a former family member responsible for the 87-year-old woman's death.

Jessie Garwood's body was found on a winter day in 2004 in a pool of blood at the bottom of the basement stairs in her Winnipeg home, where she lived alone. Winnipeg police investigated and concluded the death was accidental, possibly due to a fall.

Some 15 years later, Jim Garwood has filed a lawsuit in Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench claiming damages against his former step-daughter -- the person who discovered the woman's body in the basement.

"My mother was a victim here, and there's never been service of justice in this case," Garwood told CBC News.

The autopsy had found numerous injuries to Jessie's head, arm and hands, as well as broken ribs. It listed the cause of death as "blunt head trauma" due to multiple falls. 

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner initially considered Jessie Garwood's death to be accidental, due to falls, but later revised that. (CBC)

In the years following the death, Jim Garwood had become suspicious about the way his mother died. He did his own investigating and hired forensic experts to help. 

"I think all the evidence we've accumulated over the years all points to the same direction. This is no accident," said Garwood.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for Manitoba, which had initially classified the death as accidental, revised that conclusion in 2007 after Garwood turned up new information and raised concerns. 

In a 2009 letter to police, the chief medical examiner wrote "Ms. Garwood's injuries were more likely the result of an assault rather than a number of falls." 

Then in 2011 he wrote "the death appears not to be an accident" and that "it appears foul play may be involved." 

Assault alleged

"The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner concluded that Jessie's injuries were consistent with having been caused by an assault," says the statement of claim filed Nov. 8.

It alleges that "Jessie's death was caused by a wrongful act, neglect, or default on the part of the defendant," by pushing Jessie down the basement stairs of the home and/or "striking or otherwise physically assaulting Jessie."

The defendant's actions "were done wilfully and intentionally and amount to assault and/or battery and/or intentional infliction of harm,'' the claim alleges.

The claim seeks damages under Manitoba's Fatal Accidents Act, a law that limits the amount of money that could be awarded in a wrongful death case. It limits the damages for loss of a parent to $30,000 plus an adjustment for inflation. 

Financial motive raised

The claim alleges the defendant had financial motive to cause Jessie's death, and that in the months leading up to the death "wrongfully transferred the sum of $14,000 from Jessie's bank account by forging Jessie's signature on four separate cheques."

The lawsuit is the culmination of Garwood's earlier application to the court in 2011, in which he sought approval under the Limitation of Actions Act to pursue the wrongful death case. Typically a legal claim would have had to be filed within two years of a death. Last month a judge granted leave for Garwood's case to proceed and gave him 30 days to file a statement of claim.

CBC News has been unable to reach Jim Garwood's former step-daughter about the statement of claim filed against her. The allegations have not been proven in court and the woman has not faced criminal charges in connection with the death.

A photo shows an older woman in pink shorts watering flowers in a garden.
The lawsuit alleges Jessie Garwood's fatal injuries 'were consistent with having been caused by an assault.' (Submitted by Jim Garwood)

'Emotional stress': defendant

In opposing Garwood's application, the woman sent a letter to the court last August arguing the case should not be allowed to proceed. 

"I have been dealing with this for the past 15 years in many different avenues," she wrote. "I would ask that the court end the financial hardship, tremendous mental and emotional stress that I have had to seek professional help to overcome and try to rebuild my life after 15 years of harassment."

The woman's letter said she cannot afford to hire a lawyer to defend herself in court due to the years of legal action against her by Jim Garwood, which she said caused her to declare bankruptcy in 2014. 

Her letter also pointed out that Jim Garwood had tried in the past to get prosecutors to bring a criminal case against her, which was denied.

No criminal charges

Despite reviewing the case over the years, Winnipeg police did not lay any charges.

As recently as October 31, 2018, Manitoba Justice prosecution service wrote to Jim Garwood telling him, "We are not prepared to advance a prosecution on this matter, as we cannot conclude there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction."

"This is a complicated and serious matter, we have considered it at length, and we are of the opinion that the investigation done by the WPS and the additional evidence that you have collected does not raise this to the standard of prosecution that our office requires when determining which cases to proceed on," a Crown attorney wrote.

Garwood said he hopes his civil court action will lead to the Crown reopening the case. 

Seeking closure

Garwood's lawyer, Jamie Kagan, told CBC News wrongful death lawsuits are very rare. 

"This isn't really about some sort of large damage award, it's about trying to find the closure as to what exactly happened to his mother. And rightly or wrongly, he feels let down by the normal channels," Kagan said.

"For my client's perspective, it's no different than any person who has what they perceive to be an unsolved crime on their hands," Kagan said. "They want that judicial order that says 'This is what happened, and what happened was wrong, and it shouldn't have happened.'"

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