After waiting 10 months for the start of a coroner’s inquest into the tragedy at the Herron long-term care home in Dorval, Que., families of the elderly residents who died at the suburban Montreal facility during a COVID-19 outbreak will have to stand by for another seven months.
Coroner Géhane Kamel announced Tuesday that she would reschedule hearings into the events at Résidence Herron until early September after lawyers for the home’s managers argued that public testimonies could hurt their clients’ right to a fair trial.
The facility’s operators have been investigated by police and the prosecution service is reviewing the file after 47 Herron residents died and survivors were found in a state of neglect when COVID-19 struck the home last spring.
The Herron outbreak was one of the most shocking episodes of the pandemic during the first wave of COVID-19 in Quebec. About half of Quebec’s 10,000 deaths from the novel coronavirus were those who lived in long-term care homes.
In an oral decision livestreamed from the Montreal courthouse, Ms. Kamel said she ordered the postponement “unwillingly” so her inquest could proceed with examining the deaths at six other Quebec care homes.
The coroner said she disagreed with Herron’s lawyers, noting, “I am before a heartbreaking dilemma.”
If she had turned down their request, she said, the Herron lawyers would have sought a judicial review, leading to an indefinite suspension that could take years, while also consuming legal resources now dedicated to the inquest.
She noted that the last time the Quebec coroner’s office faced a similar challenge, proceedings were postponed for four years.
“It’s bad news for the families, because it means they will have to wait many months before having answers. … This is very, very disappointing. This matter could have been addressed before the first day of the inquest,” Patrick Martin-Ménard, a lawyer representing survivors of four Herron residents who died in the outbreak, said in an interview.
There is no guarantee prosecutors will have made a decision by September, noted Moira Davis, whose father, Stanley Pinnell, died at Herron.
While Herron’s owners have been castigated for the poor care at the facility, Ms. Davis said she hoped the inquest will also look at the local health authority’s response to the situation.
After the outbreak began on March 26, the local health board, Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal (CIUSSS ODIM), learned on March 29 of the ghastly conditions at Herron, where staff had not shown up to work and unfed residents were left in soiled diapers.
According to a probe by Sylvain Gagnon, a special investigator mandated by the provincial government, that same evening, the health board obtained a mandate from the deputy minister to take control of Herron.
The mandate was to be confirmed in writing. When that failed to happen promptly, the health board complained that it didn’t have the authority to force Herron’s owners to co-operate.
“Even though it called on the ministerial authorities several times, CIUSSS ODIM didn’t get the necessary written authorizations,” Mr. Gagnon wrote in the report, released last September.
It was only on April 7 that the health board received the documents that allowed it to obtain an order to take full control of Herron. According to Gagnon’s report, “the darkest phase of the tragedy” took place between April 5 and 10, when 23 residents died.
“CIUSSS was not the knight in shining armour they’re trying to paint themselves as,” Ms. Davis said.
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