Family of nurse killed by SARS can sue Ontario government for negligence

Colin Perkel, Canadian Press, August 24, 2005

Toronto - At least three lawsuits alleging the Ontario government put the province's economic interests ahead of the safety of its nurses during the deadly SARS outbreak two years ago have been allowed to proceed.

A judge gave the green light to three suits involving Toronto nurses infected by SARS: a $600-million class action brought by Andrea Williams, infected on the verge of a second outbreak in May 2003; a $12-million suit brought by the family of nurse Nelia Laroza, who died in June 2003; and a suit on behalf of 53 other infected nurses, where each seeks more than $17 million in damages.

The third suit also includes the family of nurse Tecla Lin, who died from SARS in July 2003.

Williams, who was exposed to SARS while undergoing a surgical procedure at North York General Hospital in Toronto in May 2003, and Laroza, 51, an orthopedic nurse at the same hospital, also became infected during the second wave of the disease, dubbed SARS 2.

While he did strike parts of the claims as groundless, Ontario Superior Court Justice Maurice Cullity issued separate rulings late Monday allowing the suits to go ahead.

The Williams and Laroza suits allege that prior to the second wave, as Toronto reeled from a World Health Organization travel advisory, government officials lowered their guard, easing hospital infection-control measures and publicly declaring the outbreak contained.

The third suit, launched by the Ontario Nurses' Association, alleges negligence in the handling of the SARS outbreak, arguing officials failed to provide adequate and timely information alerting nurses on how to protect themselves.

Lisa Miron, the Laroza family's lawyer, said Tuesday she was "very pleased" with the decision.

"They were trying to strike the claim which would prevent our pursuit for justice," Miron said. "Now we can go forward."

The Williams suit named the province of Ontario, the government of Canada and the City of Toronto as defendants, but Cullity ruled the claims against Ottawa and Toronto could not continue.

"The province of Ontario has always been the main target in this lawsuit, and we are pleased that our clients will be able to pursue their case against them," Williams's lawyer, Douglas Elliott, said in a statement.

The rulings do not address the merit of the claims, which have not been proven in court. The province can still appeal the decisions.

Brendan Crawley, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, said government lawyers are looking at the decisions "to determine next steps," and that it would not be appropriate to comment in the interim.

Laroza began showing symptoms of SARS in May 2003, but despite her belief that she had contracted the illness, a hospital emergency-room doctor sent her home with instructions to take Tylenol.

Laroza died of SARS-related complications in late June, having also infected her teenaged son, Kenneth. Six patients in the orthopedic ward where Laroza worked also died of SARS.

"Winning this motion and allowing our case to go to trial is a huge step towards finding out why our mother was allowed to die," Kenneth Laroza, now 19, said Tuesday in a statement on behalf of the family.

"She was a beautiful, strong and dedicated nurse, committed to her patients and career as well as her family, and she deserves justice. We hope the government feels the same way and does not continue to stand in the way of my family and our goal."

Williams was admitted for surgery on May 21, 2003 - a week after Ontario health officials said the SARS outbreak was under control. On May 23, officials admitted publicly that the outbreak had not been contained.

Williams remained hospitalized until mid-June 2003, but was unable to work until November that year, and then only on modified duties.

Lin, 58, worked at West Park Hospital and the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.

In April, Miron told Cullity that senior provincial officials leaned on the WHO to prematurely lift the travel advisory warning tourists away from Canada's most populous city, a warning that devastated the city's tourism industry.

"They were preferring tourism and economic interests over the infection control and the health care of Ontarians," Miron told the court.

In its attempt to have the claim quashed before trial, the provincial government argued that SARS was a "newly recognized illness" at the time and that the scientific knowledge surrounding how it was being transmitted was incomplete.

However, Miron said the province's actions were "predictably dangerous" in light of what was known about the disease.

© The Canadian Press 2005
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