Nfld. & Labrador

Settlement reached in decade-old lawsuit connected to Western Health privacy breach

Lawyer Bob Buckingham believes Monday's settlement to be the first connected to a health-care privacy breach in Newfoundland and Labrador.

More than 1,000 patients were affected, according to the lawsuit

An out-of-court settlement has been reached in a class-action lawsuit against Western Health connected to a privacy breach in 2012. (CBC)

An out-of-court settlement has been reached in a class-action lawsuit involving Western Health that dates back more than a decade.

The lawsuit, launched in August 2012, alleged  the health authority failed to protect the personal information of patients and violated the province's Privacy Act.

The class-action said more than 1,000 people were harmed when a Western Health employee accessed private medical files, including personal information. The employee has since been dismissed.

Bob Buckingham, one of the lawyers on the case, said it's believed to be the first settlement connected to a health-care privacy breach in Newfoundland and Labrador.

About 100 of those people have died since the class action was filed, according to Buckingham, who said it's upsetting those people didn't see a resolution or get answers as to why their information was accessed.

"The people have gone through years and years of not knowing why their information was accessed," he told CBC News on Monday.

"The stress and strain on people has just been tremendous. In particular, the strain on the two lead plaintiffs who were with us all the way. This has been on their mind every day for the past 10 years."

Buckingham wouldn't comment on the amount of the settlement, as it is yet to be approved by a judge, but called the number satisfactory.

Intrusion on seclusion

Buckingham said much of the lawsuit involved fighting for recognition of "intrusion on seclusion," a legal tort centred on privacy not often dealt with in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Intrusion on seclusion can be claimed if the defendant intentionally intruded on a patient's privacy, the intrusion is highly offensive to the average person, and the intrusion caused the plaintiff significant anguish or suffering.

A man sits in front of the camera for an interview on Zoom.
Lawyer Bob Buckingham hopes the settlement can serve as the baseline for class-action lawsuits over health-care privacy breaches in other provinces. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

"All of those issues were before the court," he said.

"The legal issues, some of them are novel in the sense that they hadn't been litigated in Newfoundland before around this privacy issue. So both parties were presenting to the court novel arguments, novel law, novel facts. And I think it was just decided that it would be better to negotiate a resolution."

A two-week trial was set to begin Monday. It had been expected to happen last year, said Buckingham, but it was delayed by the cyberattack that debilitated the province's health-care system in October 2021.

He says the attack could have played a factor in the health authority's preparedness to fight the lawsuit in court, but hopes it and the class action will prompt officials to take privacy seriously.

"A lot of work has to be done, and hopefully this settlement is an indication that there's a cost if you don't do it," he said.

"Hopefully something will happen and people's privacy will be taken seriously and the staff who have access to private information will be checked upon."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Mark Quinn