Ontario Nurses' Association appeals SARS lawsuit ruling

Supreme Court of Canada will decide whether to hear nurses union’s argument that provincial government should be accountable for nurses' safety

The Ontario Nurses' Association (ONA) has applied to the Supreme Court of Canada for leave to appeal the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal that dismissed an action on behalf of 53 nurses who contracted SARS while caring for SARS patients in 2003.

The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled the province owes no private duty of care to its front-line registered nurses. The ONA said the ruling leaves registered nurses at risk as they care for patients during the current H1N1 flu pandemic and in other outbreaks of potentially deadly diseases, such as SARS.

The nurses claim the provincial government assumed responsibility for their health and safety when it issued detailed directives to health-care workers advising them what precautionary measures to take — and those measures proved to be inadequate. Nurse Tecla Lin died as a result of her contact with SARS. The 52 other nurses all contracted SARS and while some have recovered sufficiently to return to work, many others continue to struggle with lingering symptoms, including constant fatigue and respiratory illness.

ONA President Linda Haslam-Stroud, RN, said a post-SARS investigation and report, issued by the late Justice Archie Campbell, included significant findings regarding the lack of worker health and safety in our health-care facilities and the implications for those on the front lines.

"Justice Campbell's findings show that he was particularly attuned to the fact that another outbreak was likely, and now it has come to pass with the declaration of a global flu pandemic," said Haslam-Stroud. "We know some hospitals do not have adequate equipment, the virus is showing resistance to Tamiflu, inspectors have contracted the virus after conducting an inspection in Alberta without properly fitted N95 respirators and we know our members are extremely concerned about their own safety at work."

She also notes that ONA has been responding to its members' concerns about some hospitals, long-term care facilities and public health units being unprepared for the flu pandemic. They are seeing inadequate patient screening for flu symptoms, insufficient supplies of protective equipment, the failure of employers to supply respirators, gowns, gloves and eye protection, failure to properly fit-test nurses for N95 respirators, a lack of communication and incomplete or absent pandemic plans.

"We continue to believe that the provincial government is ultimately responsible for our members' safety as we care for patients, and that the government owes a private law duty of care to these dedicated professionals," said Haslam-Stroud.

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