New case shows challenge of litigating prison assaults
In a recent interview with Law Times, Gillian Hnatiw discusses how the recent case, Melvin v. Ontario, provides an important lesson for lawyers who have considered taking on a case against the Crown. This case demonstrates the challenges that lawyers face in proving liability for inmate incidents, and more specifically, the challenges involved in litigating a prisoner-on-prisoner assault.
This case stemmed from an incident in 1997 when two inmates assaulted another inmate (Melvin) at the district jail in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The injured inmate suffered a serious head injury and as a result underwent a craniotomy (a procedure involving removing part of the bone from the skull to expose the brain). An action against the two defendants began in 2003.
For starters, successfully proving that prison officials breached their duty of care and are liable for injuries can be challenging. Further, given the nature of their situation, imprisoned defendants may be unable to afford to pay for legal representation. In order to prove that the Crown was liable, it must be shown that the province failed to behave reasonably in its duty to look after those in its care.
The lawyers were also able to reveal that one of the defendants was a known dangerous offender. Gillian says this kind of information can be key in proving that the Crown has failed in its duty of care. “You’re putting a vulnerable person in a cage with someone who’s known to be extremely violent. It’s a perfect recipe for an assault of this nature,” she says.
Gillian expresses that the Crown has a significant duty to anticipate trouble and intervene on inmates’ behalf. “Prison is a unique environment because there’s no way of knowing your cellmate’s history or doing anything about it.”
In Gillian’s view, this case provides an important lesson for lawyers considering taking on a case against the Crown. “We learn to not be intimidated just because we’re looking at naming the correctional services as a defender… the resource limitations don’t relieve the Crown of its duty of care to the inmates in its custody.”
Gillian Hnatiw is a Toronto personal injury lawyer. See Gillian’s biography for more information on her work in the area of personal injury law.