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Class action sought against Quebec nursing home where 31 residents perished

MONTREAL — An application for a class action lawsuit has been filed against a private long-term care home in suburban Montreal where 31 residents reportedly died in less than a month during the coronavirus pandemic.

MONTREAL — An application for a class action lawsuit has been filed against a private long-term care home in suburban Montreal where 31 residents reportedly died in less than a month during the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit filed Thursday by law firm Kugler Kandestin was brought on behalf of Barbara Schneider, the daughter of Mary Schneider, 93, who died at the Residence Herron on April 10.

Residence Herron is now the subject of three separate investigations after the spate of deaths — some confirmed to be COVID-19 related — emerged last weekend.

A criminal probe is being led by Montreal police, a coroner's investigation has been ordered and another investigation is being conducted by the provincial Health Department. 

The lawsuit seeks compensation on behalf of three groups: $25,000 on behalf of the estates of the deceased and current residents of the Dorval, Que., facility as well as $10,000 for immediate family members.

The filing seeks an additional $2 million in punitive damages for estates and residents for allegedly failing to respect the residents' rights to personal security and dignity protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In a statement issued this week before the application was filed, Katherine Chowieri, one of the owners of the residence, offered condolences and said management and staff "made extraordinary efforts, but their cries for help were not heard" by the regional health board.

Mary Schneider had arrived at Herron in February after suffering a fall in January and recovering at Montreal General Hospital. The court filing says her daughter signed an agreement to pay $4,500 per month for her care.

She was still somewhat autonomous and could get around with a walker and feed herself but required help getting dressed and bathing.

Until March 14, when Quebec ordered all visitors barred from seniors' residences due to COVID-19 concerns, Barbara Schneider was able to speak to her mother regularly and visit every other day.

The daily calls continued until March 24, but she wasn't able to speak to her mother after that. The residence began informing families that there were positive COVID-19 tests in the facility.

The filing says that on April 8, Schneider was informed her mother had contracted COVID-19, and a nurse filling in at Herron was able to link up mother and daughter. Barbara Schneider noted she couldn't believe how her mother's condition had deteriorated, and she died two days later, the court documents say.

"It's horribly ironic that she was supposed to get more care and assistance with her eating and dressing, and overall care needs ... and she received the exact opposite," said Arthur Weschler, a lawyer representing Mary Schneider's estate.

The operator of the residence, Katasa Group of Gatineau, Que., has said the regional health authority took over operations of the private long-term care home on March 29 and was firmly in charge when most of the deaths occurred.

But on April 11, Premier Francois Legault announced that the province had only learned the previous evening of 31 patients dying at Herron.

According to a copy of emails and letters provided to media by the company, Herron's operator wrote to the province's health minister April 9 claiming it had been under trusteeship since March 29 and there were serious problems in the residence. That included 23 deaths since the health authority took over, the letter said.

The regional health authority said in a statement Friday it intervened on March 29 when it found the long-term care home severely understaffed, with residents lacking food and basic personal care.

It reiterated that the owners refused to co-operate and it was only able to gain access to medical records after taking legal measures by sending two formal notices and obtaining a public health order. It said it only began managing Herron on April 8, and it was two days later that it was able to determine the figure of 31 deaths.

"We were transparent, based on the information we had," the agency wrote. 

Asked repeatedly Friday about the discrepancies between what the health authority and the operators are saying, Health Minister Danielle McCann said she preferred to wait for the investigations to run their course.

"We know there are three investigations, so we will wait for the results and take all the measures that we need to take," McCann said.

McCann said she has been assured the situation at Herron is under control, and the health authority said it has a team on site and is providing proper care to all residents.

The agency said all residents of Residence Herron have been tested — five deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 and there are 61 confirmed cases at the residence.

Weschler said the parties identified as respondents in the class action could be amended as more facts come to light.

Because of the COVID-19 epidemic, Weschler said seeking a court's authorization for the lawsuit will have to wait until the legal system fully resumes, but he hopes the case can be heard quickly.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2020.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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