Woman suing health authority for wrongful death after husband taken off ventilator

A Winnipeg woman is suing the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, alleging medical staff removed her husband from a ventilator knowing he would die, even though he had regained consciousness and was communicating with family members.

Johnnie Spence was taken off ventilator despite signs he had rallied, lawsuit alleges

A lawsuit alleges a Health Sciences Centre doctor removed a patient from a ventilator knowing it would kill him, despite evidence his condition had improved. (Google Street View)

A Winnipeg woman is suing the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, alleging medical staff removed her husband from a ventilator knowing he would die, even though he had regained consciousness and was communicating with family members.

Johnnie Frank Spence, 65, died Jan. 28, 2017, while a patient at Health Sciences Centre. 

"At no time did Johnnie express an intention to seek medical assistance in dying, to be euthanized, to commit suicide, or to be a party to an assisted suicide and at no time did he … consent to the forfeiture of his life," alleges a statement of claim filed in Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Tuesday on behalf of Spence's widow, Doris Spence.

She is seeking $100,000 in general damages on behalf of herself and seven family members, as well as punitive damages under the Fatal Accidents Act.

Johnnie Spence was admitted to hospital the afternoon of Jan. 26 complaining of breathing problems, says the statement of claim. Spence was assessed as suffering from pneumonia and advised that he would be staying at the hospital for a few days.

Family was told man 'would not get any better'

Spence had a history of medical ailments, including diabetes, hypertension and Kennedy's disease — a muscle-wasting disease — and had undergone a quadruple bypass.

By the next morning, Spence was unresponsive, placed on a ventilator and intubated, says the statement of  claim. A doctor told Doris that Johnnie "would not get any better" and should be taken off the ventilator and allowed to "pass away peacefully."

According to Doris Spence, "it was [the doctor's] intention to keep Johnnie intubated for a period of 24 hours to give the family the opportunity to attend the hospital to say their goodbyes," says the statement of claim.

Johnnie Spence's daughter was at his bedside the following morning when he woke up, gestured to his daughter to get him a scratch lottery ticket and wrote a note saying "phone mom," the statement of claim alleges.

When Doris arrived, Johnnie "waved to her, gave 'thumbs-up' and … wrote notes to her."

The doctor arrived and told Doris that Johnnie would be taken off the ventilator later that day, alleges the statement of claim. Doris asked Johnnie if he wanted to live and he "responded by nodding his head affirmatively."

"The plaintiff [Doris] claims that Johnnie had capacity to make health care decisions and had the ability to communicate with [the doctor]," alleges the statement of claim, adding the doctor "disregarded Johnnie's capacity, ability and wishes  concerning [the doctor's] proposed treatment." 

No consent to withdraw support, lawsuit claims

Johnnie Spence wrote down who he wanted as his pallbearers and bid goodbye to visiting friends and family members before the doctor turned off the ventilator and removed a breathing tube from his mouth at 12:20 p.m., the statement of claim alleges.

"The plaintiff says that each person in the room was in tears as Johnnie was kissed and received goodbyes," says the statement of claim. "Tears streamed down Johnnie's face as his granddaughter gave him a kiss goodbye. Videotape was taken of Johnnie waving goodbye."

Spence was given three morphine injections before he was pronounced dead 70 minutes later.

"Any withdrawal of support to sustain Johnnie's breathing required Johnnie's or his proxy's consent, which at no time was given," the statement of claim alleges. "[The doctor] did not engage Johnnie in a discussion about withdrawal of life support and failed to take an informed consent."

The statement of claim alleges Spence met the "minimum goal of life sustaining treatment," defined by the Manitoba College of Physicians and Surgeons as "the maintenance of or recovery to a level of cerebral function that enables the patient to (i) achieve awareness of self; and (ii) achieve awareness of environment; and (iii) experience his own existence." 

"The plaintiff states [the doctor] intentionally ignored the clinical proof of Johnnie's level of cerebral function, and set forth on a course of conduct to withdraw treatment, knowing that Johnnie's life would terminate," the statement of claim alleges.

Doris Spence and her lawyer both declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

The allegations have not been proven in court. 

About the Author

Dean Pritchard

Court reporter

A reporter for over 20 years, CBC Manitoba's Dean Pritchard has covered the court beat since 1999, both in the Brandon region and Winnipeg. He can be contacted at