Alberta bill offers COVID-19 legal liability protection for continuing care providers

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Alberta’s UCP government introduced new legislation Thursday that would give COVID-19 legal liability protection to the health-care sector including continuing care operators.

If it passes, Bill 70: the COVID-19 Related Measures Act would extend liability protection to Alberta Health Services, regulated health professionals, hospitals, long-term care facilities, lodges, licensed supportive living, pharmacies and residential addiction treatment facilities – including owners, contractors and employees.

The bill will raise the legal bar for those alleging harm caused by exposure to COVID-19, forcing them to demonstrate gross negligence, rather than ordinary negligence.

The legislation will be retroactive to March 1 of last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic began in the province, once it is given Royal Assent.

That means plaintiffs in at least four different lawsuits already launched against continuing care facility operators in Alberta may need to file new statements of claim or change their claims.

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The bill will also give the government the power to extend the same protection through regulation in the future to other sectors, including those in hospitality, child care, education, non-profits, and meat-packing plants.

UCP backbencher Richard Gotfried, MLA for Calgary-Fish Creek introduced the bill on behalf of the government.

He told reporters Thursday by raising the threshold for lawsuits the province was recognizing the diligence and compassion of operators meeting standards of care and enhanced COVID-19 measures through the pandemic.

“What’s keeping those operators up at night aren’t lawsuits, it’s about care and it’s about protection, its about the health and safety of residents – and they’ve gone to Herculean efforts,” said Gotfried, who added he has been on almost weekly calls with the sector since the pandemic began and also consulted with family councils.

“(Operators) are facing challenges because the increasing insurance costs which then are going to move on to increased costs of care for for our seniors across Alberta,” he said.

As of Tuesday, there were 121 active and 9,265 recovered COVID-19 cases at long-term care facilities and supportive home living sites. To date, 1,243 of 2,048 total reported deaths – or 61 per cent – have been in those facilities and sites.

Last year, a Calgary-based law firm filed a statement of claim in a $25-million class-action lawsuit against Revera Living, on behalf of the daughter of a woman who died from COVID-19 while living at the McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre in Calgary.

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In Edmonton, a statement of claim filed on Oct. 28 in an $8.1-million class-action lawsuit, alleged the non-profit Shepherd’s Care Foundation was negligent in its handling of a COVID-19 outbreak at its Mill Woods care home.

A bill similar to the one being proposed by the Alberta government was passed in Ontario last October.

In British Columbia, however, a law offering limited COVID-19 civil immunity to essential services last year did not extend to long term care homes

The Alberta Continuing Care Association (ACCA) registered as a lobbyist in January to push for legal liability legislation.

Gotfried said Alberta’s legislation does not remove the possibility of legal action for gross negligence or prevent lawsuits from being launched, and he encouraged family members who feel like a case meets the threshold of gross negligence to use the full force of the law.

“This is not meant to protect any one (operator), it is actually meant to hold people to account,” said Gotfried.

Gotfied offered thoughts and prayers to those who have lost loved ones when asked what he would say to those whose lawsuits could be affected.

When asked who, if anyone, will be held responsible for ordinary legal negligence that may have caused injury or death, Gotfried said the courts would determine that.

“We will not protect any bad apples,” he said.

lijohnson@postmedia.com

twitter.com/reportrix

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