Fired Horizon CEO Received Record-Breaking $2 Million in Wrongful Layoff Case Against Province
The former head of the Horizon Health Network has been awarded more than $2 million in his wrongful dismissal case against the province after he was publicly fired by the prime minister last summer following the death of a patient in an emergency department waiting room in Fredericton.
The lawyers of Dr. John Dornan say it is the largest worker’s indemnity in the province’s history and accurately reflects the losses their client has suffered.
According to his attorneys, it includes about $385,000 a year for the remainder of his five-year contract, plus $200,000 in aggravated damages, unprecedented under the Public Employment Relations Act.
No punitive damages or costs were awarded in the decision, which the judge issued Wednesday.
Dornan had been Horizon’s president and CEO for just four months when Premier Blaine Higgs announced his departure during a July 15 news conference in a bid to fundamentally change New Brunswick’s healthcare leadership.
“If we don’t get better management outcomes in our hospitals, we won’t get better healthcare,” Higgs said at the time.
Complaint not only about money
Dornan’s complaint wasn’t just about the money, his Toronto-based attorney Howard Levitt said.
“What he was interested in … was reputation protection and justification,” Levitt said in an interview.
Dornan, who served as Horizon’s interim president and CEO for about seven months, has agreed to make the role permanent to serve the public and advance healthcare in New Brunswick — at a pay cut in return, Levitt said.
He resigned from his previous positions as regional chief of staff and specialist in internal medicine at Saint John Regional Hospital.
“And then his reputation was attacked by the government for something he had nothing to do with,” Levitt said.
During the press conference, when Higgs also ousted Dorothy Shephard as health secretary and ousted the boards of Horizon and Vitalité, he cited a growing health crisis that included the “traumatizing” death of a patient on July 12 in the emergency room waiting room at Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital.
Witness John Staples told CBC News the man, a senior, had been waiting for hours alone in a wheelchair with visible discomfort when he appeared to fall asleep. It was only during a routine check of people in the waiting room that a hospital worker noticed the man had stopped breathing, he said.
Levitt claimed that Higgs’ comments “made it seem as if somehow John Dornan, who of course had nothing to do with what happened in that few hours in that infirmary, four months after he took the job permanently, was somehow responsible.” was.
“That was the impression anyway.”
I think what we now know very clearly and clearly is that problems in our healthcare system and problems in our emergency rooms do not occur in isolation. – Kelly VanBuskirk, Attorney at Law
Judge George Filliter noted that Dornan “had nothing to do with it at all,” according to Levitt.
“I think what we now know in very explicit and clear terms is that issues in our healthcare system and issues in our emergency rooms are not isolated,” said Dornan’s other attorney, Saint John resident Kelly VanBuskirk.
“Unfortunately, these occur much more frequently than anyone had hoped, and since Dr. Dornan’s departure certainly repeated,” VanBuskirk said in an interview with Levitt.
35 year reputation ruined in 40 minutes
Yet Dornan, an endocrinologist and internal medicine specialist who has practiced medicine in New Brunswick for 35 years, had his reputation ruined in a 40-minute press conference, his attorneys argue.
Dornan was subsequently interviewed twice for a similar job in another province, but negotiations ended abruptly “because they heard some negative comments from New Brunswick about the circumstances surrounding his termination,” Levitt said.
That’s why the judge took the unprecedented step of awarding not only aggravated damages, but such a large amount, he said.
He” looked at all the facts and said [the province] really dirty [Dornan’s] reputation if he’s a guy who acts with sheer integrity and was untouched in cross-examination of the case, acted in good faith and was mistreated,” Levitt said.
Dornan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The province is reviewing the decision
CBC has also requested comment from the Premier’s Office.
The province is “aware of the decision,” Health Department spokesman Adam Bowie said.
“We are reviewing it and have no further comment,” he said in an emailed statement.
The province could seek a judicial review of the decision, but Levitt says that’s unlikely.
“The Test for Judicial Review [is] You have to show that no reasonable judge could have come to that decision,” he said. “It’s an extraordinarily tough test.”
Verbal agreements take precedence over later contracts
The province had Dornan sign a contract after he had already accepted the job and started work, which stipulated that he could be terminated with a year’s salary. The judge found this unenforceable.
Dornan agreed to sign him, according to Levitt, because he had already relinquished his previous positions and organized replacements for himself.
“And he was like, ‘Well, my goodness, what am I going to do now? I took this job, I can’t go back to my old jobs. If I don’t sign this contract, I have nothing.'”
The government had argued that if Dornan signed it, he would be bound by it.
However, the judge found that Dornan was not asked for independent legal advice and the contract did not invalidate the five-year oral agreement he had already reached, as he received no consideration for the one-year termination penalty.
The arbitrator made his decision after a December 20-21 hearing with Saint John and written arguments that stretched into February.
Dornan filed his complaint within 25 days of the termination, as required by the law governing relations between the New Brunswick government and government employees.
Pushed for stricter COVID rules ahead of layoff
Just days before his ouster, Dornan had been pushing to put the province’s hospitals back into the “red phase” of COVID-19 measures, an internal CBC News email revealed.
“A seventh wave of COVID is among us,” with hospitalizations and staff outbreaks mounting, he wrote on July 11.
A Horizon infectious disease and infection control oversight committee recommended moving “to the hospital red phase next week if numbers continue to worsen,” according to the email.
Dornan wrote that officials “could make this call together Monday or Tuesday next week,” citing July 18 and 19.
He was released on July 15, and the transition to the red phase never materialized, although the numbers continued to worsen.
In a July 19 COVID update, Horizon and Vitalité reported an increase in COVID hospitalizations, active hospitalizations, hospital outbreaks and staff infections between July 10 and 16.
Three days after his email and a day before his firing, Dornan encouraged Horizon employees to “consider setting an example” by masking in indoor public spaces because of the “escalating” transmission of COVID-19, it said it in an internal memo from CBC.
No mask is required in New Brunswick since March 14, when all COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.
Dornan’s firing was “unrelated” to the July 14 memo, a Health Department spokesman told CBC on July 18.
When Dornan was named president and CEO last March, then Health Secretary Shephard noted that he had “held multiple positions in leadership, education and frontline activities.”
“His skills, abilities and competencies will ensure that the Horizon Health Network continues to provide quality health services to residents,” she said in a statement at the time.