N.W.T. gov't facing lawsuit over health privacy breaches

Lawyer Steven Cooper says three firms will launch a lawsuit to seek damages from the Northwest Territories government over a series of breaches they say affected an estimated 10,000 people.

Lawsuit will seek damages, reform over decade of health information breaches

Lawyer Steven Cooper says his firm and two others will pursue a lawsuit against the N.W.T. government over a series of privacy breaches affecting an estimated 10,000 people. (CBC)

The Northwest Territories government will soon face a lawsuit over the many health privacy breaches that span the last decade. 

A group of law firms plans to file a statement of claim with the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories this week, and launch a representative action, said Steven Cooper, one of the lawyers involved.

The territory doesn't have class action legislation, said Cooper, so the lawyers plan to "go old school" and use a representative action, which is a similar tool. 

The lawsuit could apply to tens of thousands of people and will resemble a class action, he said. 

It will cover several breaches, including the theft of a laptop containing health data for 80 per cent of N.W.T. residents and a breach in which hundreds of confidential documents appeared in a banker's box at the Fort Simpson dump.

Cooper says the territorial government won't be deterred by a $10,000 fine. 

Health files found at the Fort Simpson dump account for just one of the breaches that could form a proposed lawsuit over health information breaches in the N.W.T. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

"The government the Northwest Territories, as the keeper of the sacred information, is only going to take notice when punitive damages are in the millions, because it's going to hurt them. They have to be hurt. They have to feel the economic pain," he said. 

Cooper Regal, Guardian Law and Edmonton-based firm James H. Brown & Associates have been working independently on the N.W.T. breaches.

They realized they were pursuing similar claims and joined forces. 

Their representative plaintiff is from Fort Simpson and will be named in the initial statement of claim. 

The government the Northwest Territories ... is only going to take notice when punitive damages are in the millions, because it's going to hurt them.- Lawyer Steven Cooper

Confidential information about patients' mental health, drug use, applications for treatment and detailed notes from counselling appeared at the Fort Simpson dump in December 2018.

The territorial Health and Social Services Department has seen other notable breaches. There was a lost, unencrypted USB stick with 4,000 patients' information on it and in 2010 and 2012, medical records were inadvertently faxed to CBC.

The territory's health department declined to comment for this story, because it hasn't been notified about the claim, department spokesperson Damien Healy said in an email.

Lawsuit aims to act as deterrent 

The lawsuit is in response to a "steady stream of privacy breaches of health care information," said Cooper. 

Asked whether he thinks the action is likely to be certified by the courts, Cooper said that N.W.T. and Nunavut have few precedents. 

One of them is a $1 million settlement against Bell Mobility in 2016, penalizing them for charging Northern customers for a non-existent 911 service.

So far, several people have contacted the lawyers involved, but the firms are seeking others whose privacy has been compromised. Anyone joining the proposed lawsuit will have their information collected as data and made anonymous for the purpose of the claim, he said. 

Damages will evolve as firms collect data 

If the action is certified and succeeds, the lawyers will seek damages, which will be determined as the firms collect more information from people affected, the defendant and experts. 

Cooper said there should be compensation for people to get credit monitoring. Compromising information like social insurance numbers exposes people to identity theft and credit damage. 

"Generally speaking, your health information is probably the most expansive collection of information about a human being that that is available. This is the problem," he said.

The damages could be influenced by how people have been affected — including mental anguish over the breaches and the risk of future fraud or identity theft. 

For that, there are precedents elsewhere. 

Calgary lawyer Clint Docken helped reach a $725,000 settlement in 2016 for a breach involving 620,000 Albertans health information. That amount was for monitoring and the inherent risk of identity theft.

When a person's confidential information is compromised, the fear of what that information could be used for is often the most discomforting, said Cooper. 

Once the statement of claim is filed, it could take months to certify the lawsuit. If it comes to trial, it could be months or years before a potential settlement is reached, he said.