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The Globe and Mail

Coroner's probe begins in case of man who died waiting for ambulance

James Hearst

Charla Jones for The Globe and Mail/charla jones The Globe and Mail

More than two years after James Hearst died waiting 38 minutes for an ambulance during Toronto's last city-wide strike, a coroner's inquest will begin probing the circumstances of his death Tuesday.

Friends and family of Mr. Hearst say this year's potential labour action – which could see city workers locked out or on strike as early as Feb. 5 – places even more importance on finding out what happened.

"Our main thing through all of this is really looking for answers," said Mr. Hearst's best friend, David Ostrihon.

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Mr. Hearst, 59, collapsed June 25, 2009, in the lobby of an Alexander Street apartment building. Two Good Samaritans and a security guard performed CPR, waiting for an ambulance, which was idling nearby because paramedics had concerns about their safety at the scene. They were waiting for police to arrive. Mr. Hearst, a transportation broker, died from a heart attack.

All this happened days into the strike, when paramedic staffing was at 75 per cent. The inquest will look at whether the strike's reduced staffing was an issue, in part because it led to paramedics working in unfamiliar neighbourhoods. The paramedics that responded to Mr. Hearst were working outside their usual assigned area.

However, a court decision last April is limiting the extent to which the strike can be addressed by the inquest, after the union representing emergency medical services, CUPE Local 416, argued it had no connection to the events leading to Mr. Hearst's death.

The court's decision limits the deputy chief coroner to covering whether the strike affected delivery of medical services to Mr. Hearst. Not to be covered are such sweeping topics as: whether paramedics should have the right to strike; whether the Ambulance Services Collective Bargaining Act should be amended; or how the Essential Services Agreement was achieved.

Mr. Ostrihon said whether the inquest finds the strike to be a factor will be of public interest. "If the strike did play a role... the people of the city need to know that especially with a service like EMS," he said.

Lillian Vella said she's sure the strike was a factor in her brother's death.

"I think it's disgusting and they're trying to hide their mistakes. It's already been proven there was a big mistake," she said.

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Toronto EMS referred questions to the City of Toronto. Wynna Brown, a spokeswoman for the city, declined to comment until the inquest process is complete. She said that if there is labour action this year, paramedic staffing will be set at 85 per cent, compared to 75 per cent in 2009.

The union responded through its lawyer, Michael Mitchell, who said a coroner's inquest wasn't the appropriate place to discuss labour relations.

He said there's not enough evidence to suggest a link between the strike and death. "We're not seeking to prevent the coroner from going into that issue," Mr. Mitchell added.

The inquest's jury will hear from about 30 witnesses, including some people from the union, and may make recommendations to prevent similar deaths. The inquest is expected to last three to four weeks.

Cheryl Mahyr, spokeswoman for the coroner's office, said the inquest coroner, Bert Lauwers, will explain Tuesday morning how much he can delve into labour action.

"The court never said, 'You can't go there,'" she said. "It's just you can't go there to the extent you might like."

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Mr. Hearst's death was investigated by Ontario's Ministry of Health in 2009. It found inappropriate decisions were made paramedics, dispatchers and the supervisor involved, but did not address whether the strike was a factor.

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