As seen on CBC News on December 20, 2007.
Advocates of patients who died needlessly call for overhaul
A B.C. woman whose husband died in hospital after errors were made wants the Campbell government to change the law to make the medical system pay for its mistakes.
“They should pay somehow,” Bonnie Ryde said. “Why shouldn’t they be responsible for what they’ve put us through?”
The B.C. law dealing with wrongful death, which hasn’t been amended since 1846, only allows compensation for lost income. While the provincial government has said it is working on changing the law, critics say they fear new legislation won’t go far enough to allow proper redress for serious medical mistakes.
Ryde’s husband, Al, died at age 66in August 2006 in the hospital in Vanderhoof, B.C.
He was admitted because of a heart attack and was supposed to be transferred for cardiac care to Vancouver more than 850 kilometres away. Instead, he died 11 days later of a second heart attack while still waiting to be transferred out.
“I want the doctors exposed. I want the hospital exposed. I want the lab exposed,” said Ryde.
The Northern Health Authority (NHA) later apologized for a “significant error” made in a hemoglobin test, which led doctors to incorrectly reduce Ryde’s blood thinner medication. The NHA admitted that error might have contributed to his death.
“Please accept our sincere condolences on the loss of your husband and our apology for the identified error in the care provided to him,” the NHA wrote to Bonnie Ryde.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. concluded the overall risk to Ryde’s life “was underestimated” by hospital staff and “not communicated” to specialists in Vancouver.
“The hospitalization in Vanderhoof … lacked an end point in treatment, and did not have the appearance of continued patient advocacy for transfer and appropriate investigation,” the college’s quality of medical performance committee wrote.
Throughout the 11 days in hospital, the family suspected his condition was grave and urged doctors to get him transferred to a larger centre immediately, Ryde said.She was told by doctors not to drive her husband to another hospital herself because he might not survive the trip, she said.
“I had to keep him in [the Vanderhoof hospital] to try to get him transferred out to where he could get care,” Ryde said. “I was fighting them. My daughter was fighting them. She’s a registered nurse.”
No legal recourse despite mistakes
Ryde is now raising the couple’s 10-year-old adopted son Joel alone and is having serious financial difficulties because of debts and the loss of her husband’s income from his part-time work as a miner.
Ryde was astounded when, despite the medical mistake, lawyers refused to take on a lawsuit against the hospital. She was told that under B.C. law, Al’s life was essentially worth nothing.
“Because they can’t say how much longer he would have worked or even if he would still be working at all, then he’s worthless,” said Ryde. “He wasn’t worthless to this community. He wasn’t worthless to his children. There are 10 children who relied on him and 17 grandchildren — and he loved and adored every single one.”
B.C.’s Family Compensation Act was modelled after British law. It allows the courts to compensate for lost income, but only if the deceased was a wage earner who was expected to continue earning income for some time. When older patients or children die needlessly, their families almost always have very little recourse to civil court redress.
“You can kill people pretty much with impunity and there are no civil consequences,” said Donald Renaud, a Vancouver-area lawyer who started the Wrongful Death Reform Group in B.C.
“It’s cheaper to kill than it is to injure, there is no question,” he said.
Lobby groups want law made tougher
Renaud said he founded the lobby group to try to convince the Campbell government the law needs to be changed after he grew tired of having to tell angry, grieving clients that he can’t help them.
“The public has no idea that the state of the law is this poor,” Renaud said. “When somebody comes to me, I want to be able to do my job — and I can’t because there are no damages that I can pursue.”
B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal said he agrees that potential financial awards should be higher, and a change is long overdue.
“We’ll do whatever it takes to fix the law,” Oppal said.
B.C. has just finished a consultation process and Oppal said he expects to introduce draft legislation soon.
“We want to make sure that the change is made for the best interests of everyone involved.”
The Canadian Institute for Health Information recently estimated 24,000 Canadians die as a result of medical errors each year, making it one of the leading causes of death.
Applies to other types of deaths
The same lack of compensation applies to any type of wrongful death in B.C.
The Coalition Against No-Fault in B.C. (CANF), another group pushing for change, has pointed out that, if the O.J. Simpson case happened in Canada, the victim’s families would have had no recourse.
“The [Ronald] Goldman family would have had no access to justice against O.J. Simpson, by way of civil action, had the murder of their son taken place in B.C. rather than California,” CANF wrote in a brief to the office of the Attorney General.
Oppal said when the new law is drafted, the position of the insurance industry must also be taken into account.
“You know, there are a lot of people involved,” Oppal said. “If we simply leave it up to the juries [to decide amounts to be awarded], what about the people who pay the damages? The insurance companies, they have a viable interest in this.”
Because the insurance industry is a powerful lobby group, Renaud and others who have lobbied for change fear the law may get minor “tweaking” instead of a major overhaul. Other provinces that updated their laws only made small changes, Renaud said.
“It’s the public on the one hand and it’s these special interests on the other hand,” said Renaud.
The B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities also would like to see the law changed because many people with disabilities cannot work, and therefore cannot sue for medical mistakes.
“Many provinces have amended the laws,” the coalition wrote in another report to government, “though none has done so sufficiently to provide proper or fair compensation for all people impacted by the death of a loved one.”
Five provinces — Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia — have amended their laws to allow claims for grief and lost care and companionship. Alberta’s new law is the most generous, allowing automatic payments to spouses of $75,000, plus $45,000 for each child.
Oppal said the new law will not be retroactive, so it won’t be used by Bonnie Ryde, who still can’t talk about her husband’s death without breaking down.
“He believed in this country. He never missed a day of work in his life. The way he saw it, his job was to pay his taxes and take care of his family,” she said, wiping away tears. “He was just the grace in my life. He was everything to [his son] Joel.”
Ryde is currently preparing for bankruptcy court, where she expects to have to fight to keep the home she shared with her husband for decades. She said she plans to represent herself in court.
“I don’t even have a lawyer anymore because they want more money,” Ryde said. “I have no more money to give.”