Family of Ontario woman who died of COVID-19 launches class-action lawsuit against long-term care operator
Teresa Pugliese died after contracting virus at Chartwell Aurora residence, suit says
One of Canada's largest senior living companies has been hit with a class-action lawsuit by the family of an elderly Ontario woman who died of COVID-19 at one of its facilities, claiming it failed to properly respond to the pandemic and caused "preventable deaths and unnecessary suffering," according to the the firm behind the suit.
Teresa Pugliese died on April 26 at age 86 after contracting the virus at the Chartwell Aurora Long-Term Care Residence, according to a 33-page lawsuit filed at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on May 11.
"We're all broken hearted, because she was a great mom, a great mother-in-law, a beautiful grandmother," Pugliese's daughter-in-law, Lina, told CBC News.
"She went through a lot of struggles in her life like a lot of other mothers, I'm sure... These long-term care, old age homes had ample time to get themselves prepared. We could have avoided a lot of people dying if they had taken the proper steps and the proper protocol."
Chartwell operates some 200 seniors' facilities across Canada, ranging from independent living to assisted living settings to long-term care homes. The focus of the class action is the company's 27 Ontario long-term care centres.
The suit is on behalf of anyone who lived at a Chartwell long-term care home from Jan.10 onward. It has yet to be certified and its claims have not been tested in court. The company has offered its "sincere sympathies" and says it will respond to the suit when it's served.
Raised in Italy, Pugliese was just five when her mother died. Being the only daughter in her family, she was sent to live at an institution with nuns until the age of 11. After that, she returned to her hometown, where she worked as a housekeeper, before getting married at 18.
She arrived in Canada with her five children in 1967, one year after her husband, whom she now leaves behind.
Her kindness and caring spirit came to define her, her family said — so much so, that many who knew her called her "Saint Teresa."
Pugliese had moved into the home in August 2019 after she was diagnosed with dementia. It was recommended she stay at a long-term care facility because of safety concerns, the lawsuit says. She was placed in a third-floor room with three other roommates and a shared bathroom.
The last time her family saw her, on March 8, they say she was in good health. But as the virus took hold in Ontario, the home moved to restrict visitors on March 14.
Infected residents not isolated, suit alleges
Then came the news no family member of a loved one inside the home wanted to hear: On April 10, Chartwell Aurora had its first case of COVID-19.
Albino Pugliese was told about a day later that his mother tested positive for the disease. A few days later, he learned there were nine other positive cases, all on the same floor as his mother.
The lawsuit claims Chartwell Aurora failed to isolate Pugliese after she was confirmed to have the virus, and that she was never taken to hospital for treatment.
"In fact, Teresa was permitted to walk freely throughout the facility, interacting with other residents, and other residents were similarly allowed to walk freely and interact with her prior to her testing positive for the COVID-19 virus," the suit says.
These families trusted these long-term care facilities to care for their loved ones, and I think their trust is broken.- Rose Leto, Neinstein LLP
Meanwhile, the virus was spreading. By April 24, Pugliese's son learned there were 28 residents infected, all on his mother's floor, three who died, and at least four staff members were also confirmed to have the virus.
All the while, Pugliese's son Nick says, the family was told she was doing well.
Two days later, the family was told Pugliese's condition had deteriorated and that she was likely in her final hours. The suit says the family was given a chance to see her one last time. But before they could, Pugliese died of COVID-19 related complications, "alone and without any family."
"To die like that — that breaks my heart, to know that I couldn't go and see her. And then to find out she's gone," Nick Pugliese said through tears.
"There's so many people like us, and I hope somebody does something about this because this is not fair for the families," he said. "I cannot bring my mother back."
'Every single death in one of our homes is too many'
Lawyer Rose Leto of Neinstein LLP, the firm behind the legal action, told CBC News the focus of the suit is on Chartwell's planning and response to the outbreak, including what she called a failure to isolate residents, as well as a lack of personal protective equipment and staff. The goal, she says, is accountability.
Several other families with loved ones at Chartwell homes have told stories that reveal "a common thread," Leto said.
'Residents who tested positive were not removed from the shared accommodations and in many cases residents were permitted to use other areas of the home and other facilities despite testing positive," she said.
"These families trusted these long-term care facilities to care for their loved ones, and I think their trust is broken."
For its part, Chartwell says it is aware of the statement of claim filed by the Pugliese family and "will respond accordingly once it has been served."
"We offer our sincere sympathies to the family of Mrs. Pugliese and are deeply aware of how difficult a time this is for their family, and also all family members and staff at Chartwell Aurora Long Term Care Residence in the fight against COVID-19," the company's vice-president of communications, Sharon Ranalli, said in a statement to CBC News.
"Every single death in one of our homes is one too many. We are sorry that in the midst of COVID-19 and its devastating effects on the senior population, most especially those with pre-existing health conditions or weakened immune systems, that we can not avoid the effects of this terrible virus for all of our residents. We extend our sympathy to all families of those directly impacted by this pandemic."
Province not committing to public inquiry
The deadly toll of COVID-19 on Canada's nursing homes has given rise to a growing number of proposed class-action lawsuits with some legal experts saying the cases will turn on what's considered reasonable care during a pandemic.
One Toronto law firm has served the provincial government with notice of a proposed class proceeding on behalf of all Ontarians in long-term care homes, alleging failures in overseeing the facilities have resulted in widespread, avoidable illness and death during the pandemic.
Another such lawsuit that was launched by two Ontario men whose mothers died from COVID-19 targets Revera, a privately owned nursing home company.
None of the cases have been certified as class actions so far and their claims have not been tested in court.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford was asked Tuesday if he would commit to a public inquiry the province's handling of COVID-19 in the long-term care system.
Ford stressed that his government agrees the long-term care system in the province is "broken," but stopped short of agreeing to the sweeping probe.
"We're going to review the system," he said. "A system that's been broken for decades. I can promise you one thing, we are going to fix it."
With files from Lorenda Reddekopp and The Canadian Press