Bill would protect Alberta health workers, care homes from some COVID-19 lawsuits

Alberta has introduced a bill to give legal protection to health workers, including long-term care-home operators, facing lawsuits over COVID-19.

Richard Gotfried, a United Conservative backbencher, says the proposed legislation offers protection but is not a free pass in the courts to those who have been demonstrably derelict.

“This (bill) is not meant to protect anyone. It is actually meant to hold people to account,” Gotfried said Thursday prior to introducing Bill 70 in the house.

“But they’re also being held to account by meeting the high standards of care.

“If somebody is not meeting those high standards and there is a death or illness? I absolutely encourage (families), as I would personally with any of my relatives, to pursue that to the full course of the law.”

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The bill exempts a range of workers, including doctors, pharmacists and care-home operators from being sued over COVID-19 unless it is for gross negligence.

Gross negligence has a higher bar to reach in law, as it involves flagrant failure to implement or follow an accepted standard of care.

The proposed law would be retroactive to March 1, 2020, around the time of the start of the pandemic in Canada.

If it passes, any existing lawsuits would have to be amended to meet the threshold of gross negligence.

There have so far been 2,048 COVID-related deaths in Alberta. About 61 per cent of those have occurred in long-term care facilities or supportive living sites, particularly in the early months of the pandemic.

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Those deaths have dropped sharply in recent months, as the elderly and care-home residents were given priority for COVID vaccines.

The government said there are four outstanding Alberta lawsuits that would fall under the legislation and would have to be amended to sue for gross negligence if the bill passes.

The legislation follows similar rules in Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and British Columbia. Similar legislation is proposed in Saskatchewan.

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Salimah Walji-Shivji, chairwoman of the Alberta Continuing Care Association, said the bill is needed.

“Our association has advocated for liability protection to protect operators who have been diligently following public-health orders and recommendations during the pandemic,” said Walji-Shivji in a statement.

“It would ensure the protection and sustainability of the continuing-care sector as a whole.”

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Gotfried introduced the bill in the house in a rarely used political procedure, given that backbenchers are not technically part of the government and so can’t sponsor government bills.

He said he has been doing extensive work in the field and has been working on a larger review of continuing-care legislation for Alberta Health.

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© 2021 The Canadian Press

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