Trial begins for former Alberta chief medical examiner’s wrongful dismissal lawsuit

A former Alberta chief medical examiner’s wrongful dismissal trial began in Edmonton on Friday, revealing more details of what has gone on in the problem-plagued office.

Dr. Anny Sauvageau, a forensic pathologist and expert in asphyxia, served as the province’s chief medical examiner from mid-2011 until her contract was not renewed in 2015. 

Her statement of claim against the Alberta government alleges that its decision not to renew her contract “was in direct retaliation and retribution” for issues she had raised about political interference with her office. 

She is seeking, among other remedies, $7.6 million in damages for loss of income and benefits.

The government’s 2018 statement of defence says the decision to not renew her contract was made in the public interest and that Sauvageau was “either unwilling or unable to function properly as the chief medical examiner” and that she failed to demonstrate the qualities of sound, rational decision-making and responsible leadership.

None of the allegations on either side have been proven in court. 

Body transportation dispute 

In his opening statement on Friday, Sauvageau’s lawyer, Allan Garber, said his client had received excellent performance reviews until the short period leading up to her departure.

He said four factors contributed to her losing her job.

One was her attempt to standardize payments for contractors who transport bodies from rural locations.

According to her statement of claim, Sauvageau had recommended to the premier in 2014 that the current fee schedule for body transportation be maintained, instead of spending an extra $3 million to satisfy requests from the Alberta Funeral Services Association (AFSA).

Garber said department representatives from procurement, finance and legal services met to discuss the issue and recommended compensation not change, but instead, the government increased their pay.

Garber also said that despite the government’s public statements at the time assuring Albertans that the office of the chief medical examiner was independent and operated at arm’s length, deputy minister Tim Grant told Sauvageau that her office was “part of the department and cannot operate at arm’s length from it.”

Department members also manipulated Sauvageau’s signature to approve documents she had not approved, Garber said.

He said because of what was going on at work, Sauvageau started to suffer from insomnia and anxiety.

‘Inflated and unreasonable view’

In his opening statement, the government’s lawyer, Craig Neuman, described the plaintiff’s pleadings as “a shifting landscape of allegations” and said that she had an “inflated and unreasonable view” regarding the independence in her job.

He said she took assertions of independence “out of context,” beyond the limits of her recognized authority.

Savageau had authority over performing autopsies, working on cases, and determining the causes and manners of death, but not over every departmental decision, Neuman said.

He said the body transportation contract that was created successfully addressed concerns, including some she had raised.

Neuman said by August of 2014, there was a breakdown in trust and respect between Sauvageau and Maryann Everett, the assistant deputy minister.

Leaked documents

In September of 2014, the same month Sauvageau learned her contract was not going to be renewed, CBC journalists Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell published a story, relying on leaked documents, that outlined the chief medical examiner’s allegations of political and bureaucratic interference in the independence of her office. 

The story did not name the source of the leaked documents.

Neuman said following the story’s publication, Sauvageau told Everett and in a letter to then-Premier Jim Prentice that she was not the source of the leak and that she did not know who was. 

Neuman said the government learned through litigation that those statements were not true and Sauvageau had breached the code of conduct and ethics for the Alberta Public Service.

Sauvageau thought job was for life

Speaking in court on Friday afternoon, Sauvageau said that she and her husband would not have uprooted their lives to move from Quebec to Alberta so she could take a temporary job.

She said that the chief medical examiner at the time, Dr. Graeme Dowling, had assured her that though she would have a three-year contract, it was just a formality and she could keep working in the office for the rest of her career.

She said her pay was mostly based on a grid from the Alberta Medical Association, not the one for government employees, and that Dowling had called the contract, “that piece of paper that allows them to pay us more.”

Sauvageau said she asked Dowling if she should consult a lawyer about the contract but he advised her not to waste money on that.

“When he said it was just a formality, I believed him,” she said.

Sauvageau said she was hired as assistant chief medical examiner but she and Dowling discussed her moving up to deputy chief after a year and replacing him in the top job upon his retirement.

That ended up happening sooner than planned, in June of 2011, after he stepped down following a mass resignation of Calgary medical examiners.

“He didn’t have energy or resilience to rebuild the office,” she told court.

Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Doreen Sulyma is presiding over the civil trial, which resumes Monday and is scheduled to last 37 more days. 

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