Employment & Labour

Landmark $1.4M awarded for 'destroyed' research career

A Halifax cardiologist represented by Toronto lawyers Michael Wright and Danielle Stampley has won a landmark $1.4-million lawsuit against the Nova Scotia Health Authority for the loss of her reputation and research career. READ Financial Post, CBC, Lawyers Weekly

“It’s a significant victory,” says Wright, of Wright Henry LLP, who represented Dr. Gabrielle Horne in the 33-day judge and jury trial.

“We’re extremely pleased with the decision and quite grateful to the jury for how carefully and seriously it went about its task.”

Wright tells AdvocateDaily.com he is not aware of another Canadian court that has awarded non-pecuniary damages for loss of reputation and career choice of the same magnitude. There have been a few high awards for defamation that also included amounts for other damages, such as lost wages, “but those issues were not part of this award,” Wright says. “These damages were not about her financial losses at all.”

Horne, who studies aortic aneurysms, was suing for the damage to her career after some of her hospital privileges were withdrawn between 2002 and 2006, effectively leading to the closure of her research program.

Horne’s privileges were withdrawn because of apparent concerns over patient safety and a claim that she was not collegial, Wright says.

She was working on three non-invasive and observational studies, which within days were deemed not to risk patient safety, he says. The claim was that her lack of collegiality was making it difficult for her to work with other doctors and that would potentially endanger patient safety.

One doctor was "extremely upset" she would not collaborate with him on her research, and two senior doctors in supervisory roles "strongly suggested" she work with that doctor. But Horne wanted to collaborate with other doctors and scientists who could make meaningful contributions to the research, Wright says.

“There were many allegations made against her, but ultimately, they lacked substance,” he says.

The health authority eventually decided those concerns did not justify the variation in her privileges — but it took four years to come to that decision.

“The problem was the time,” Wright says.

“They destroyed her research career. When her privileges were restored in 2006, she asked the health authority to make a public statement indicating her research was safe and she was not a dangerous doctor, and to take positive steps to assist her in restarting her research career," he says.

“They were not prepared to do that. They walked away from the situation that left her with no option but to pursue the lawsuit if she wanted her research career to have a prospect of starting again.”

Horne, who continues working at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, is now focused on restarting her research career.

Research is “enormously expensive,” Wright says, and while the damage award will help, it will not go far. Horne had originally sought damages to pay for the actual costs to recommence her research career.

Employers and institutions should take notice of the jury decision, Wright adds.

“These kinds of allegations made against professionals are so damaging to their careers. Before they are made, there needs to be a very careful investigation and a high level of confidence that the evidence supports the allegations.”

The jury decided the allegations were made in “bad faith,” Wright says, and the conduct was so damaging that a substantial damages award was necessary to compensate for it.

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