Judge grills former Alberta chief medical examiner’s lawyer in closing submissions of civil trial

After listening to eight weeks of evidence in a wrongful dismissal case, Edmonton Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Doreen Sulyma had pointed comments and observations for the lawyer representing former chief medical examiner Dr. Anny Sauvageau Tuesday. 

Sauvageau is suing the province for $7.6 million in damages for loss of income and benefits. Her contract was not renewed when it expired at the end of 2014. 

The civil trial began on April 1 and lasted eight weeks. Sauvageau testified at length about the way she was allegedly mistreated by bureaucrats in the justice department. 

Sauvageau told the court that she felt bullied throughout the summer of 2014. She also felt subjected to political interference.

The forensic pathologist’s chief complaint was about her perceived lack of independence.

Sauvageau felt her office should operate independently and at arm’s length from the government, but an internal legal opinion showed that the only independence she had was to determine the manner and cause of death through autopsy. 

On Tuesday, lawyers for the two sides presented their analysis and interpretation of the evidence. The judge directed pointed comments at Sauvageau’s lawyer, Allan Garber. 

“The issue is she was given very qualified legal advice and she didn’t like it and she would go to her death with the idea that nobody understood the implications of independence,” Sulyma observed.

“So what did she expect would happen Mr. Garber? When you have that kind of fundamental disagreement with your employer, do you expect that they will defer to you when there is an oversight function? How can they continue this relationship in the face of her digging her heels in?” 

Garber acknowledged that the relationship between Sauvageau and her employer was “fractured,” but he continued to insist that the government acted in bad faith. He said the government’s actions showed “contempt” for his client. 

The judge noted that in hindsight, it seemed inevitable that Sauvageau’s contract would not be renewed. 

“Good faith goes both ways. It has to,” Sulyma said. “If she wants to go to her death on this issue and they can’t see that as productive… and the time for renewal comes up, what does she think will happen?”

‘Irreconcilable differences’

The lawyer representing the government strongly disagreed that his clients acted in bad faith, although in hindsight he admitted some situations could have been handled better. 

Craig Neuman placed the blame clearly on Sauvageau and what he called her “mistaken and excessive… perhaps almost an obsessive fixation about her independence as the chief medical examiner”. 

He urged the judge to dismiss Sauvageau’s lawsuit. 

“The outcome here…came down to irreconcilable differences about independence,” Neuman said. 

“The defendant made reasonable efforts to resolve those differences before it reached the stage of the impasse where the only remaining solution was to part company.”

The judge asked the lawyers to file written closing submissions by September 2. It’s not clear when she’ll render a decision. 

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