New Brunswick

Class-action suit best way to address alleged abuse at psychiatric hospital, judge rules

A $500-million class-action lawsuit alleging negligence and discrimination at the only forensic psychiatry centre in New Brunswick has been given the green light.

$500-million lawsuit against N.B. government and Vitalité alleges negligence and charter breaches

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Tracey DeWare has decided a class action lawsuit alleging decades of wrongdoing at the Restigouche Hospital Centre in Campbellton will go ahead. (Radio Canada)

A $500-million class-action lawsuit alleging negligence and discrimination at the only forensic psychiatry centre in New Brunswick has been given the green light.

The lawsuit against the New Brunswick government and Vitalité Health Network was filed in 2019 on behalf of all patients who have resided or been treated at the Restigouche Hospital Centre in Campbellton since 1954. 

The claim alleges the province and health authority were negligent and breached the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by discriminating against people with mental disabilities.

In a decision released Friday, Chief Justice of Court of Queen's Bench Tracey DeWare said she found enough reason in the 25,000 to 30,000 pages of documents to certify the case.

She said a class-action is an appropriate avenue for a vulnerable group of people — those with mental illnesses in the justice system — to possibly get justice.

"There is no question that the vast majority of these potential class members would never have the financial means or the necessary professional assistance to prosecute this claim in the absence of a class proceeding," she wrote.

In 2019, provincial Ombud Chares Murray found there was "significant mistreatment" of patients. Murray believes the gaps at the hospital "may have resulted in the premature death of a patient" in 2018.

DeWare said some of the issues with the facility in the 1950s and '60s were "almost exactly the same" as concerns raised by provincial Murray in 2019, showing that a class-action lawsuit is the only avenue for change.

Reid Smith is one of the plaintiffs, filing the suit on behalf of his son, Aaron, who he alleged was overmedicated at the Restigouche Hospital Centre. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

"Despite the fact that millions of dollars have been spent, countless experts have been sent to evaluate the RHC and provide recommendations, and pages of policies and procedures have been put in place — the same problems continue to plague the RHC," DeWare wrote in her decision.

"Perhaps a class proceedings will succeed where other measures have, to date, allegedly failed."

The province's lawyers previously argued the lawsuit shouldn't be certified because there aren't enough common issues with those who have lived at the facility.

DeWare said that without a class-action lawsuit, some people's issues would never come to light.

Certification is the last major hurdle a class-action suit must clear to go ahead.

The hospital centre has 140 beds and provides treatment for people who are admitted voluntarily or by court order. The court heard that between 2018 and 2019, 97 per cent of people discharged were there by court order.

It's not clear how many patients and former patients could be included in the class.

Filed by parents

The two named plaintiffs are Darrell Tidd and Reid Smith, litigants on behalf of their sons Devan Tidd and Aaron Smith, respectively, who are or were patients at the hospital.

Tidd alleges his son, who has autism has been often over-medicated and has complained of assault at the hands of other residents.

Smith alleges his son, who has autism and obsessive compulsive disorder, was also over-medicated at the centre.

In an interview, Tidd said he's pleased with the decision.

"We're not doing this for just our two boys," he said. "We're doing it for the ones that have no voice out there."

The lawsuit includes affidavits from six other former residents, some of whom allege having to soil their beds after being restrained for hours and being punished for refusing to take medication.

The next hearing is scheduled for Nov. 3.