Lawyer for CHSLD Herron requests delay as coroner's inquiry into COVID-19 deaths begins

A lawyer representing one of Quebec's most infamous long-term care facilities filed a motion on Monday to postpone the portion of a coroner's inquiry into COVID-19 deaths dealing with the CHSLD Herron.

The Herron became infamous during the first wave of the pandemic after dozens of residents died and reports emerged of negligent conditions. The request for a delay was greeted with dismay by a lawyer representing families of the deceased.

“The families that I represent have been waiting for answers for a year,” said Patrick Martin-Menard.

The coroner's inquiry was announced in June and was set to begin on Monday morning, starting with three days dedicated to the Herron. In total, 47 people died in the facility.

But Nadine Touma, the lawyer representing several Herron administrators, called on coroner Gehane Kamel to postpone the hearings, citing ongoing criminal investigations.

Police have completed their investigation into the deaths and the file is currently with Quebec's office of Crown prosecutors, which has yet to announce whether charges will be filed.

Touma argued that the coroner's investigation could result in prejudice against her clients, making it impossible to find an impartial jury should a trial take place.

Touma's request also calls for a publication ban should her request for a postponement be denied.

Christian Leblanc, a lawyer representing CBC and Radio-Canada, argued against the request, saying “The publicity of such an investigation is of capital importance. It's for the public good.”

Martin-Menard also opposed the idea of a publication ban, saying it would be detrimental to families who wouldn't be able to learn what their loved ones went through.

The coroner is due to make a decision on these requests on Tuesday morning.

After the hearings into the Herron, the coroner is scheduled to investigate several other long-term care facilities, including the CHSLD des Moulins in Terrebonne, the private Levis facility Manoir Liverpool, the CHSLD Rene-Levesque in Longueuil, Shawinigan's CHSLD Lafleche, CHSLD Ste-Dorothee in Laval and Montreal's CHSLD Yvon Brunet.

The investigation will also include a component focusing on how the pandemic was handled on a provincial level.

“My mandate is to shed light on the care of our seniors, in particular those in CHSLDs who have particularly suffered,” said Kamel.

Only deaths that occurred between March 12 and May 1, 2020 will be covered by the investigation.

"Coroners intervene in cases of deaths that are violent, obscure or that could be linked to negligence. Deaths that occur outside of these markers, including those that result solely from a coronavirus infection, are not investigated by coroners," said a coroner's office news release issued when the public inquiry was announced in June.

The majority of deaths caused by COVID-19 in Quebec occurred in seniors' residences.

Class action lawsuits that have been filed -- notably against the Herron and Sainte-Dorothée long-term care homes -- allege there was negligence against the residents. These class actions have not yet been authorized by a judge, a necessary step before they can proceed.

The Quebec ombudsperson has also indicated that they, too, will investigate deaths in seniors' residences during the pandemic.

Coroner's inquests are not intended to find those responsible for the deaths, but rather to make recommendations to prevent future deaths.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 15, 2021.

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