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6 Ontario LTC providers face class action lawsuits for alleged gross negligence during pandemic

Plaintiffs in the certified class actions say gross negligence led to avoidable deaths and illnesses at for-profit long-term care homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Shutterstock - image credit)
Plaintiffs in the certified class actions say gross negligence led to avoidable deaths and illnesses at for-profit long-term care homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Shutterstock - image credit)

Class action lawsuits against six of Ontario's largest for-profit long-term care (LTC) home providers, claiming gross negligence that led to illnesses and deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, have been allowed to proceed.

In a ruling last week, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice certified class action suits against Sienna, Revera, Schlegel, Responsive, Extendicare and Chartwell.

The separate class actions were filed on behalf of thousands of clients, family members and visitors, who allege the companies were unprepared to provide care during the pandemic and failed to protect the health of residents and visitors.

"There were many homes in Ontario that didn't have a problem but these were the worst offenders from our perspective," said Joel Rochon, one of the lead lawyers for the plaintiffs. "We allege that their conduct fell far below any reasonable standard."

At the height of the pandemic in 2020, the quick spread of COVID-19 through LTC homes led the province to ask the military for help staff struggling to provide care. That led to a scathing military report about living conditions in some of those homes.

From March 2020 to April 2022, 4,335 residents died in Ontario's LTC homes, according to a September report from the province's ombudsman. In their core submissions, the plaintiffs' counsel say at least 3,300 of those deaths were in LTC homes owned and operated by the defendants.

WATCH | 6 major Ontario long-term care chains face class action lawsuits: 

In certifying the class actions, the court considered expert opinions, provided by the plaintiffs, that defendants had fallen short of providing reasonable infection control and prevention during the pandemic. The plaintiffs claim the majority of COVID-related resident deaths at LTC homes were preventable.

"Inhibiting the LTC home industry from repeating any mistakes is a significant goal of this class action that would be diluted if individual claims were pursued in its place," wrote Justice E.M. Morgan in the court's decision to allow the class actions to proceed.

Provincial legislation passed in 2020 provides liability protections to businesses from COVID-19 exposure-related lawsuits, but doesn't protect "bad actors" from endangering others willfully or through "gross negligence."

CBC News has reached out to all six defendants for comment. Three have not yet responded.

A spokesperson for Revera declined to comment as the matter is before the courts, while Chartwell spokesperson Sharon Ranalli said in an email that "the claim that was certified does not have any merit and Chartwell intends to vigorously defend itself."

In another email, Schlegel spokesperson Kristian Partington expressed condolences for those who lost loved ones to COVID-19 in the company's homes, but said Schlegel "followed the guidance of Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health through the pandemic."

Class actions will bring long-awaited justice: advocate

Two other pending class action suits against independent LTC companies and municipally-owned LTC facilities were also considered, but the court decided not to certify them, citing a lack of representative plaintiffs and cause of action.

That doesn't mean plaintiffs in those proposed class actions don't have valid grievances, says long-term care advocate Vivian Stamatopoulos, a professor and researcher at Ontario Tech University. She says she hopes those grievances can be addressed through other legal avenues.

Jared Thomas/CBC
Jared Thomas/CBC

Stamatopoulos says she's happy class actions against for-profit LTC homes will go ahead.

"I have been vehemently against the profit motive in long-term care," she said in an interview. "They had the vast majority of deaths. They were clearly shown in numerous investigations to fail compared to the non-profits."

Stamatopoulos says these class actions will finally give families the chance to seek justice for the avoidable loss of their loved ones.

"I just really hope that, you know, when they have their day in court, that they establish what we all saw unfold," she said, "which was this massive, widespread, often preventable negligence that resulted in far too many unnecessary deaths, and just trauma that will live with these families for the rest of their lives."

Lina Pugliese knows that trauma. Her late mother-in-law, Teresa, is the representative plaintiff through her estate executor in the class action suit against Chartwell.

"If proper steps were taken from the beginning of this pandemic it would have alleviated a lot of heartache and all these deaths that occured," Pugliese said.

None of the allegations in these class action suits have been proven in court.

The certification of these lawsuits comes less than a month after the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld a ruling to allow a class action against Ontario's LTC minister to proceed. Plaintiffs in that case allege the provincial government knew the risks COVID-19 posed to vulnerable LTC home residents, but failed to respond quickly enough, resulting in thousands of illnesses and deaths.

Those allegations have also not been proven in court.