Class-action lawsuit launched over alleged negligence at Restigouche Hospital Centre
The New Brunswick government and Vitalité Health Network are named as defendants
A new class-action lawsuit on behalf of patients at the Restigouche Hospital Centre is seeking $500 million in damages for alleged "historic negligence" at the Campbellton psychiatric facility dating back to the 1950s.
Koskie Minsky LLP, a Toronto-based firm, filed a statement of claim in Saint John Court of Queen's Bench on Friday. It named the New Brunswick government and Vitalité Health Network as defendants.
The 28-page statement of claim alleges the defendants were "negligent" in the operation of the facility and supervision of its residents for decades.
It also alleges the defendants violated section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects people with a mental disability, among other groups, from discrimination.
The class action has yet to be certified by the court, and a certification motion date has not been set.
The court document says the defendants have 20 days to file a statement of defence.
Treatment of patients at the provincial psychiatric hospital was thrust into the spotlight in February when New Brunswick ombud Charles Murray released a scathing report that revealed patients had been victims of "mistreatment and inadequate care."
Murray said in one case, he believed gaps in care — stemming from chronic understaffing — "may have resulted in the premature death of a patient" last year.
The statement of claim names Darrell Tidd and Reid Smith as plaintiffs. The fathers will be the litigation guardians for their sons, Devan Tidd and Aaron Smith, who are both patients at the hospital.
The two fathers voiced concern for their sons' care to CBC News in the wake of the report. They said in February they're troubled by what they believe is an understaffed centre that over-medicates patients.
"It's on my mind every day, from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep," Tidd said.
The statement of claim describes the alleged of treatment of their sons.
"Both Devan and Aaron were repeatedly and continuously physically abused and punished by being physically restrained without justification," the document states.
"Both Devan and Aaron were repeatedly prescribed medications they did not need, which had the effect of restraining or sedating them."
The claim also alleges the two witnessed staff assaulting residents, were put in seclusion without cause and threatened by other residents only to have their concerns dismissed by staff.
'There are systemic problems'
James Sayce, a lawyer at Koskie Minsky, said the firm hopes to represent all past and present residents — who were alive as of May 24, 2017 — of the institution, dating back to Jan. 1, 1954.
"There are systemic problems with the way this place is run," Sayce said Tuesday in an interview from Toronto. "It's not run at the standard a mental hospital, a psychiatric facility, should be run. It never has been from the looks of things."
Koskie Minsky has a history of taking governments to court on behalf of vulnerable people, Sayce said, noting the firm's work in prosecuting governments over Indian residential schools.
"Our specialty at our firm is suing governments for historical abuse," Sayce said.
"These people are some of the most vulnerable people in Canada and most of them, if not all of them, would have a very difficult time bringing this case on their own."
Past reports key to lawsuit
The claim is based on the stories of the plaintiffs as well as a series of reports criticizing the administration of the hospital.
In addition to Murray's report, the lawsuit highlights a 1968 public report commissioned by the province that detailed some "repeated" civil rights violations, appalling care of youth residents and a mixture of overcrowding, understaffing and lack of training.
Another eight reports, published between 1956 and 2010, were cited to paint a picture of mismanagement, understaffing and abuse. Some of the reports were internal documents or annual reports and complaints to the ombud.
Sayce declined to say how his firm became aware of the Restigouche Hospital Centre and how it reached the $500-million figure.
The damages suffered by residents listed in the statement of claim include: emotional, physical, sexual and psychological abuse; exacerbation of mental disability; impaired ability to find and keep employment; lost income; and the loss of the general enjoyment of life.
Premier Blaine Higgs said at the legislature Tuesday he had to first read the details of the action before commenting, but he did say, "It's disappointing to hear."
George Weber, an independent mental health expert hired by the province to review the hospital after the report was released, recommended keeping the centre open but speeding up changes to improve safety and treatment.
"Our goal was that we were putting measures in place to protect the residents here, and we put a lot of effort into doing that," said Higgs. "I know Vitalité had spent a lot of extra time and effort to make it happen."
Vitalité Health Network disputed some of Muray's findings, describing them as outdated. CEO Gilles Lanteigne said at the time steps were already taken to improve the culture in the centre, and he maintained patients are safe.
Green Party Leader David Coon said Tuesday he's still waiting to see the province act on the recommendations in Murray's report. He said he wasn't surprised to hear of the lawsuit.
Coon maintained his stance that the troubled youth annex, slated to open next to Restigouche Hospital Centre, should be moved to southern New Brunswick where there's adequate staff.
Youth annex uncertainty
A pair of Liberal MLAs said the class-action suit will be dealt with through the justice system, but both Jean-Claude D'Amours and Gilles Lepage said the youth annex must open.
Murray recommended cancelling the near-complete youth mental health project. The province halted construction inside in March, though work on the exterior was allowed to continue.
Higgs said Tuesday the government is still considering the issue.
Fearing job losses, northern New Brunswick officials have been fighting to keep the youth annex, and the main centre, in Campbellton
"We need to make sure that the youth centre opens as soon as possible," D'Amours said at the legislature, saying the governing Tories need to confirm it will open.
"We need to offer the service that youth need, and, at this point, we know Vitalité, the ombud, the independent [review] has been done. I think we are confident the future will be brighter for the centre."
Known as the Provincial Hospital until 2015, the 140-bed Restigouche Hospital Centre housed thousands of youth and adults since it opened in 1954, the statement of claim said.
It was established to be the province's lead centre for inpatient mental health services, including for patients with neurocognitive disorders, autism spectrum disorders and psychotic disorders.
The goal is to reintegrate patients back into their communities when that's possible.
With files from Shaun Waters and Karissa Donkin