A $50-million class-action lawsuit against the owners of Roberta Place alleges gross negligence led to a devastating COVID-19 outbreak that infected all but one resident and claimed more than 60 lives in January.
Jarlette Health Services failed to address a pattern of mismanagement, short staffing and repeated health and safety violations, says the statement of claim filed Friday.
“They were reckless, irresponsible, and neglectful of their responsibilities to provide high quality and compassionate care to the residents and staff of Roberta Place Long Term Care Home,” the claim alleges.
“They demonstrated an aggravated, flagrant and careless pandemic response plan in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Barrie, Ont. home did not plan for an outbreak, or provide employees, residents and visitors with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), screening or testing for the virus, or “even basic” acute respiratory infection surveillance, the claim says.
Jarlette said it is aware of the lawsuit and extends its condolences to all those who have been impacted.
“We acknowledge that the outbreak remains extremely difficult and we have a tough road ahead, however, our commitment to our residents, family members, team members and our community remains steadfast,” said Stephanie Barber, community relations coordinator.
“Safeguarding those we serve remains our top priority, despite the challenges we have faced, and our provision of care will always extend to the community of Barrie as well.”
When the outbreak was declared Jan. 8, residents who tested positive for COVID-19 were not separated from those who had tested negative, as an inspector reported in the days following.
Residents weren’t provided with food in their rooms to avoid communal dining, the lawsuit alleges. Staff didn’t physically distance in break rooms, and they were allowed to work at other Jarlette-owned homes at the same time.
“The families want answers and they want Roberta Place to be held accountable for this kind of egregious conduct,” said lawyer Robert Durante of the Barrie firm Oatley Vigmond, which along with Brock Medical Malpractice is representing all residents and staff who tested positive for COVID-19 and their family members.
“It’s a disgrace. It’s very disgraceful what happened here,” Durante said.
Watch: Ontario focuses vaccines on long-term care residents amid delays. Story continues below.
Marcella Lambie is the representative plaintiff on behalf of her brother George Head, who has lived at Roberta Place since 2018.
Head tested positive for COVID-19 a few weeks ago, after feeling feverish, weak and fatigued, the claim says. He developed a fever, congestion, difficulty swallowing, elevated heart rate and pneumonia, and is currently isolated in his room as his condition deteriorates, according to the statement of claim.
Lambie declined to be interviewed but told CTV Barrie Sunday, “This should never, ever have happened, ever ... Somebody needs to explain this to me. I did not leave him like this. He was supposed to be well cared for, isolated. He didn’t deserve this.”
More than 20 families have reached out about joining the lawsuit, Durante said.
“We have received contacts not just from family members directly affected, but friends of family members, by coworkers, by people who know someone who’s been affected. Really the entire city has been impacted by what’s gone on at Roberta Place,” said Durante.
In the months leading up to the outbreak, Roberta Place was inspected by the province four times and was issued 18 written notices of non-compliance, according to Ontario’s database. Inspectors raised concerns about neglect and unsanitary conditions, even as the COVID-19 pandemic was well underway.
In January 2020, before COVID-19 was spreading in Canada, an inspector visited Roberta Place and was informed of two separate communicable disease outbreaks. On neither occasion were the outbreaks reported properly, nor was the Ministry of Long-Term Care notified.
The inspector found not all staff were trained on the home’s zero tolerance policy for abuse and neglect. She also determined that in separate incidents, two residents had suffered injuries that could’ve been prevented had Roberta Place followed their care plans.
Another inspector reached a similar conclusion in July, after a resident had fallen. She also found another resident complained of pain for more than eight days before being assessed by a doctor and determined Roberta Place “failed to ensure that residents were not neglected by staff.”
In September, a third inspector visited Roberta Place and noticed a troubling pattern of staff not following PPE or isolation rules.
Two residents were supposed to be isolated as a precaution against COVID-19, but the inspector saw staff go in and out of both rooms wearing only a mask and gloves. They were also supposed to be equipped with a gown and goggles or face shield.
“The improper initiation of isolation precautions and improper use of PPE placed other residents in the home at risk of disease transmission,” she wrote in her report.
The inspector also observed improper handling of soiled items that could’ve contaminated other surfaces. Soiled briefs and linens were on carts in hallways in two different areas, alongside cleaning supplies, gloves and towels, the report said.
On another occasion, a personal support worker was holding soiled items when they assisted a resident to the dining area, the report said. Used gowns were hanging over a hallway handrail outside a resident’s room.
Residents’ mobility aides were soiled and stained, posing a risk for harmful viruses, fungi or bacteria, the inspector noted.
Medication was also an issue, the inspector found. One staff member did not document the reasons why narcotics were given to five residents over a three-month period. Roberta Place did not ensure its health-care team met regularly to review its medication system during the pandemic and the inspector found medication was not locked away or disposed of properly.
In December, another inspector reported Roberta Place was still not complying with pandemic rules. On numerous occasions, she documented staff not wearing eye protection, gowns or gloves when caring for residents. A personal support worker told her they didn’t change their masks between caring for residents because they didn’t have access to the supplies.
The inspector saw a breakfast tray placed on a dirty linen cart for 10 minutes before it was given to a resident.
She also observed a staff member wearing only a mask drop off food in a resident’s room, then take off the mask and go into another resident’s room. After, they told the inspector they were unaware which resident was supposed to be isolating.
The inspector issued an order to fix these problems, noting the home must comply by Feb. 3.
“The scope of this non-compliance order was widespread because concerns were noted during four of the five dates on site,” the report said.