Iqaluit woman deemed intoxicated, inquest told

An Iqaluit woman who died of head injuries after spending 14 hours in RCMP custody was deemed to be simply intoxicated by police and medical staff, a coroner's inquest has heard this week.

An Iqaluit woman who died of head injuries after spending 14 hours in RCMP custody was deemed to be simply intoxicated by police and medical staff, a coroner's inquest has heard this week.

Elisapee Michael, 52, fell down the front steps of the Nova Inn in Iqaluit on Aug. 8, 2009. She died of head injuries in an Ottawa hospital on Aug. 13. ((CBC))

The coroner's inquest, which began Monday in Iqaluit, has heard that Michael, 52, fell down the front stairs of the Nova Inn around 11 p.m. ET on Aug. 8, 2009.

She was initially taken to Qikiqtani General Hospital, then transferred to the local RCMP drunk tank, where she stayed until the next afternoon, when officers found she was showing signs of brain damage. She died on Aug. 13 in an Ottawa hospital.

Nearly all the witnesses who have testified so far, including RCMP officers who spoke on Wednesday, said they determined that Michael had been drinking on the night of Aug. 8.

Paramedics testified earlier this week that they smelled alcohol on Michael, and that information was relayed to doctors at the hospital's emergency room, where she spent 3½ hours before she was transferred into RCMP custody.

Doctors who worked at the hospital said Michael did not show obvious physical injuries, so they determined that she was intoxicated. Michael became loud, restless and disruptive at the hospital, so staff decided to call in the RCMP, the inquest heard.

Arrested for causing disturbance

On Wednesday, Const. Paul Lutley testified that Michael did not appear disruptive when he arrived at the hospital around 3 a.m. on Aug. 9, but he arrested her for causing a disturbance.

She could not walk or communicate well, so Lutley said she was taken to the RCMP truck in a wheelchair, then transported to the Iqaluit detachment, where she was placed in the drunk tank.

The drunk tank cell had no mattress or blankets, but only a toilet and a drain in the middle of the floor, the inquest heard.

Lutley said Michael vomited right away, which he said was an "unfortunate, normal occurrence." She then lay in a fetal position for the next 14 hours, which officers assumed was her "sleeping it off," the inquest heard.

Scott Wheildon, a lawyer representing Michael's family, said Michael had been vomiting brown bile since she was picked up by police.

Sgt. Terrence Foster, who was the daytime shift supervisor on Aug. 9, testified that he knew Michael had been vomiting, but he added that vomiting was fairly common among prisoners at the detachment.

'Breakdown in system'

RCMP officers and guards are required to check on prisoners regularly, but Foster admitted that "policy is not always followed to a T" in Iqaluit.

Images of the cell block show instructions for how officers should gauge a prisoner's responsiveness were posted outside the drunk tank cell, but the inquest heard that Michael was watched only through the cell window or from a video monitor.

The inquest also heard that there was a note on Michael's prisoner form to have her returned to Qikiqtani General Hospital at some point. Foster said another officer did phone the hospital, but was told the hospital could not take Michael back at that time.

Testifying by video conference from Corner Brook, N.L., Foster said Michael vomited later in the afternoon, so he called for an ambulance. He said he then looked at her file and realized she had been in the cell for 14 hours, so he urged the emergency dispatch to send the ambulance right away.

When the ambulance was called around 5:30 p.m., Michael was found lying in a position that indicated she had brain damage.

Michael was rushed back to Qikiqtani General Hospital, and then flown to an Ottawa hospital, where she died four days later.

When Wheildon asked Foster if the RCMP had failed Michael, the officer replied, "Obviously there was a breakdown in the system."

The coroner's inquest continues on Thursday.