Family of Mi'kmaw woman who died in Nova Scotia jail sues province for negligence

HALIFAX — The family of a Mi'kmaw woman who died in provincial custody is suing Nova Scotia’s attorney general and the province's health authority for negligence.

A statement of claim filed Tuesday says Sarah Rose Denny died in hospital of double pneumonia after she was incarcerated at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, in Dartmouth, N.S. Instead of treating her pneumonia symptoms, a nurse at the jail assumed that the 36-year-old mother was suffering from alcohol withdrawal, the lawsuit alleges.

"The defendants displayed a profound failure in responding to Sarah Rose Denny's repeated pleas for medical assistance," the lawsuit says. "Their inaction directly contributed to the deterioration of Sarah's health, and, tragically, resulted in her preventable death."

Denny was eventually taken to the Dartmouth General Hospital on March 26, 2023, and died shortly thereafter.

None of these claims have been proven in court. Nova Scotia Health declined to comment on the case, while the attorney general’s office says it has not been served a notice of action and declined to comment further.

Filed on behalf of Denny's parents and children, the lawsuit alleges the 36-year-old was denied appropriate medical care in detention and died two weeks after she was arrested. The family claims that Denny’s death was caused by negligence on the part of Nova Scotia Health and the attorney general, and is seeking unspecified damages.

When Denny was arrested in Eskasoni, a First Nations community in Cape Breton, her mother told RCMP that Denny needed to see a doctor because she was not feeling well and might have COVID-19, the lawsuit says. The family alleges that Denny made repeated requests to see a doctor while she was incarcerated.

"Her illness worsened and over the next few days Sarah experienced swelling of the hands and feet, severe back pain, and was limping," the claim reads. "A woman incarcerated in the cell next to Sarah's made multiple requests for medical attention on her behalf, to no avail."

Denny stopped eating and didn't have the strength to stand or leave her cell, the lawsuit says, adding that when Denny began coughing up blood, her fellow inmates wiped her face clean.

The claim says a nurse attributed Denny's symptoms to alcohol withdrawal, an assessment the family says was a breach of her Charter rights. Citizens, under the Charter, cannot be discriminated against based on their history of addiction — “a recognized disability" — the claim says.

“The defendants relied on Sarah’s disability to make uninformed assumptions about her illness, attributed all her symptoms to alcohol withdrawal, and did not make further assessments or attempt to diagnose her,” the lawsuit says.

Denny's right to life was also violated, the family alleges, because she was allegedly denied adequate care.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2023.

Marlo Glass, The Canadian Press