New Brunswick

Higgs welcomes lawsuit launched by doctor accused in Campbellton COVID-19 outbreak

Premier Blaine Higgs says he looks forward to "all the details coming forward" in the case of a former Campbellton doctor accused in 2020 of breaking New Brunswick's COVID-19 rules by failing to isolate, and of being the source of a deadly outbreak.

Premier says facts in 2020 case of Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola will come forward and be understood

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters a court hearing may be the only way to put 'an appropriate end' to the discussion about the case of Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola, who left Campbellton, N.B., and now practises in Louiseville, Que. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Premier Blaine Higgs says he looks forward to "all the details coming forward" in the case of a former Campbellton doctor accused in 2020 of breaking New Brunswick's COVID-19 rules by failing to isolate, and of being the source of a deadly outbreak.

Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola, 52, filed a lawsuit Thursday against the province, the RCMP and Facebook's parent company. He alleges, among other things, "institutional anti-Black systemic racism," abuse of power, negligence, defamation, malicious prosecution and a breach of his charter rights.

Higgs is not named as a defendant, but Ngola's lawyers have repeatedly called on the premier to apologize for his role in the matter, which saw the doctor, who is from Congo, face racist threats, be suspended, investigated criminally by the RCMP and charged with breaching the province's Emergency Measures Act — a charge that was later dropped.

Asked during Friday's COVID-19 briefing if there's anything he wishes he had done differently, and what he'd like to say to Ngola, Higgs noted he previously offered to "put all the facts as [he] knew them on the table."

That way, "they could be challenged or discussed in a very open manner. And that was declined," he said, referring to June 8, 2021.

I would like for all the facts to come forward and be understood because I think that maybe is the only way that it puts an appropriate end to this discussion.- Blaine Higgs, premier

At that time, Higgs had publicly challenged Ngola to waive his privacy rights so the premier could reveal what he said he knew about the family doctor and the Campbellton region outbreak.

"So now I'm just saying, I would like for all the facts to come forward and be understood because I think that maybe is the only way that it puts an appropriate end to this discussion," Higgs told reporters Friday.

"So I'm looking forward to all the details coming forward exactly as they unfolded."

Higgs, who has maintained he has nothing to apologize for, made similar comments on June 11, 2020, when he told reporters he was bound by privacy rules and limited in what he could say.

"But I am quite comfortable in the position that I've taken, how I've spoken about it and the reality of how this situation developed," he said at the time. "And if the facts are all on the table, I am sure that others will be clear as well."

The Campbellton outbreak began May 21, 2020, shortly after Ngola drove overnight to Montreal to pick up his four-year-old daughter, because her mother had to travel to Africa for a funeral. He also made a stop in Trois-Rivières, Que., he later confirmed.

He did not self-isolate for two weeks when he got back to New Brunswick, but contends this was consistent with other doctors and nurses, that the province's rules were unclear, and that he was exempt under shared child custody provisions. He returned to work at the Campbellton Regional Hospital the next day.

Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola was accused of violating the Emergency Measures Act for not quarantining after driving across the border to Montreal. (Jean-François Benoît/CBC)

"On or about" the morning of May 27, Ngola and his daughter both tested positive for COVID-19. Within one hour of being advised by Public Health of his results, Ngola's identity was "outed" on social media, along with his photo, and he was quickly labelled by some as "patient zero," his lawyers have alleged.

During a news conference that afternoon, Higgs blamed what was then a cluster of COVID-19 cases in the Campbellton region and a resurgence of the coronavirus in the province on an "irresponsible individual" who returned to work at the hospital and treated patients for two weeks.

Higgs never referred to Ngola by name, but said a medical professional in their 50s had travelled to Quebec for personal reasons, "was not forthcoming about their reasons for travel upon returning to New Brunswick and they did not self-isolate as a result."

A total of 41 people became infected, and two of them, who were in their 80s, died, marking the province's first COVID-19 fatality.

Ngola, who is also known as Jean Robert Ngola Monzinga and as Ngola Monzinga, had a family practice in the Campbellton region for about seven years, with roughly 2,000 patients, and also worked in the hospital's emergency department.

The situation became so "toxic" he had to leave, his lawyer Joel Etienne said during a news conference Thursday, describing it as a "banishment." Ngola is now based in Louiseville, Que.

Asked Friday whether the way the matter unfolded could hurt the province's efforts to recruit more doctors and more immigrants, Higgs replied: "Well, I would suggest that if all the facts come out in a proper hearing — and if it has to be a court challenge, and that's I guess where it's headed — that will allay those fears."

Ngola's lawyer told reporters he relishes the day fellow lawyer, Christian Michaud, has the opportunity to cross-examine the premier.

Ngola is seeking unspecified compensation and punitive damages, as well as restorative justice.

Respondents decline comment

A spokesperson for Meta, Facebook's parent company, declined Friday to comment. "We can't comment on pending litigation."

The Department of Justice and the RCMP have also declined to comment.

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