“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers…”
Dick the Butcher
Shakespeare’s Henry V
“Did you hear?” the email from my friend asked. “The hospital is appealing [the] Gabrielle Horne verdict? Honestly.”
I should have expected as much. But I was hopeful. Naively, stupidly hopeful, it turns out.
I’ve been following Dr. Gabrielle Horne’s ongoing, never-ending medical-ethical-legal case since I wrote a feature about it 10 long years ago, and even that was four years after the incident that triggered this twisted tale.
The short version: in 2002, Horne — then a bright young Dalhousie University medical researcher whose cardiac imaging lab at Halifax’s QEII Health Sciences Centre had been lauded as a “global pioneer” in a new area of heart failure research — came under intense pressure from her boss to make another senior cardiologist a “prominent” member of her research team.
She not unreasonably said no. What followed turned that routine difference of professional opinion into a toxic case of high-level workplace bullying. As the president of the hospital’s medical staff association would testify years later in court, Horne “was a junior female investigator being bullied by older male colleagues.”
On October 18, 2002, the hospital’s director of medicine (a woman, it should be noted) took the unprecedented step of unilaterally “varying” Horne’s clinical privileges on an “emergency basis” to “protect the safety of patients,” not only calling her medical reputation and professional career into question but also effectively shutting down her aforementioned pioneering research lab.
It took four years and countless legal wrangles before the hospital’s board grudgingly admitted it had no business mucking about with Horne’s privileges. But it still refused to apologize or correct its spectacularly, vindictively, catastrophically wrong-headed decision, which ultimately cost Horne, her patients and, potentially, future as-yet-undiagnosed patients. The board even cravenly described Horne as “the author of her own misfortune” for having questioned her betters.
By 2007, the authority had squandered more than a million taxpayer dollars on high-priced private lawyer fees, not to mention on all the uncountable but costly hours, days, weeks and more its own in-house lawyers and senior administrators, all of it devoted to trying to cover their exposed corporate butts. That doesn’t, of course, count the millions in outside funding that now no longer came to Nova Scotia to support Horne’s research.
Those costs, of course, would be much higher today. And the time-clock is — incredibly — still ticking.
This spring — fourteen years, four provincial premiers, three changes of government and the merging of nine regional health authorities into one later —Dr. Horne’s case finally ended up in court. After a 33-day-trial, a seven-member civil jury definitively ruled the hospital had wronged her and ordered it to pay Horne $1.4 million in damages.
It wasn’t everything Dr. Horne’s lawyers had asked for — the judge ruled the jury could not legally award financial damages specifically to enable Horne to re-start her cardiac research lab — but it was at least vindication.
Or should have been. Instead, the health authority now says it will appeal. Again.
When I heard that, I couldn’t help thinking of Shakespeare’s Dick the Butcher (or perhaps I was channeling the Eagles’ Don Henley’s voice in my ear: “Old Billy was right: let’s kill all the lawyers… kill ’em tonight…”)
How many routine disagreements go “legal” these days simply because saying you’re sorry supposedly invites liability? How many court cases drag on well past their best-before date, not because the cause is just but because the lawyer wants/needs to win.
Whoever is responsible for continuing this particular travesty of justice should be required to put up their own money to fund the appeal — and to pay for whatever additional judgements and damages inevitably follow. That might change their tune.
Enough is enough. This is too much.
From the November-December 2016 issue of Atlantic Business Magazine.
This is not a comment on the merits of appealing or not, but just to observe that the focus should be on the clients, and not the lawyers. Lawyers take their instructions and are bound by ethical rules when they do so (and I’m glad for that). In a government/institutional setting, the lawyers are also not free to just walk away, as a private lawyer can (although there are limitations to that, too) if she doesn’t concur with her client’s wishes. Your overall point is taken.