Sarah Rose Denny’s mother, father, and sons are suing the provincial government, alleging provincial staff wrote off the symptoms of her worsening pneumonia, including coughing up blood, as alcohol withdrawal.

As the Halifax Examiner reported in March, 36-year-old Denny died in the hospital after becoming seriously ill in provincial custody. She had been incarcerated at the Central Nova Scotia Correction Facility, the jail in Burnside. Denny’s friend and relative told the Examiner she died of double pneumonia.

Lawyer Emma Halpern, on behalf of Denny’s parents, Katherine and Reginald, and her two sons, filed notice of action in Nova Scotia Supreme Court on Tuesday. They named the Attorney General of Nova Scotia and Nova Scotia Health as defendants. Neither defendant has filed a defence.

In an attached statement of claim, Halpern provided further details around the circumstances of Denny’s death. None of the claims has been tested in court.

Mother told RCMP that Denny needed medical attention

Police arrested Denny at her home in Eskasoni on March 19, Halpern wrote. Her mother notified one of the RCMP officers that Denny wasn’t feeling well. She said Denny might have COVID-19, and needed to see a doctor.

The RCMP took Denny to the Cape Breton Regional Correctional Facility. On March 21 she went to court in Sydney, where she pleaded guilty to breach of probation. The province then took Denny to Burnside.

“During the time Sarah was incarcerated at the Facility, she repeatedly informed the employees of the Facility that she was ill and requested to see a physician,” Halpern wrote.

A cell at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility. Photo: Halifax Examiner

“Her illness worsened and over the next few days Sarah experienced swelling of the hands and feet, severe back pain, and she was limping. While under the care of the Defendants, Sarah stopped eating, and could not gather the energy needed to stand up or leave her cell. She also lost feeling in her legs completely. Sarah and another woman incarcerated at the Facility made multiple requests for Sarah to see a doctor, but Sarah was never assessed or treated by healthcare.”

Halpern wrote that Denny reported her symptoms to a Nova Scotia Health nurse at the jail.

Staff wrote off symptoms as alcohol withdrawal

“The nurse told Sarah she believed Sarah was in withdrawal from alcohol and ignored her other symptoms,” Halpern wrote.

“Sarah’s symptoms got progressively worse, and she could not eat or drink on her own. A woman incarcerated in the cell next to Sarah’s made multiple requests for medical attention on her behalf, to no avail.”‘

Denny started coughing up blood. Another Nova Scotia Health employee “determined Sarah was in alcohol withdrawal and made no further assessments or referrals.”

“The woman in the adjacent cell cleaned the blood from Sarah’s face as Sarah could not do it herself. The next day, Sarah continued to cough up blood,” Halpern wrote.

“On or about March 26, 2023, a Captain visited the unit where Sarah was incarcerated in the Facility. The woman in the cell next to Sarah’s called for the Captain to attend to Sarah. The Captain called an ambulance to take Sarah to Dartmouth General Hospital, but it was too late. Sarah died in the hospital the evening of March 26, 2023.”

Two RCMP officers showed up at Katherine Denny’s house that day to tell her that her daughter was dead. The next day, Katherine heard from the medical examiner.

“The Medical Examiner found the cause of death was severe lung infections in both lungs, also known as double pneumonia,” Halpern wrote.

“Concerns about Sarah’s deteriorating health and distress were repeatedly brought to the attention of officers and health care staff at the Facility, but Sarah remained largely unattended to. The conduct of the Defendants’ employees amounts to reckless behaviour and the Defendants’ employees acted in bad faith by failing to respond to Sarah’s requests for medical attention. The staff employed by and at the Facility failed to respond, and Sarah Rose Denny’s condition worsened, which ultimately resulted in her death.”

NS ‘perpetuated systemic inequalities,’ family claims

Denny’s death is the result of negligence on the part of the province and Nova Scotia Health, Halpern wrote. Denny’s treatment, she alleged, “fell below the standard of care required to operate a correctional facility reasonably, safely, and competently.”

Halpern wrote that the defendants breached Denny’s charter rights. That includes discrimination based on her history of addiction, “a recognized disability.”

“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,” Halpern wrote.

“Further, the Plaintiffs state that the denial of proper medical care to Sarah Rose Denny was influenced by her identity as an Indigenous woman. The denial of state services to Indigenous women is well documented and directly impacted Sarah, exacerbating the already prevalent discrimination faced by Indigenous people within the criminal justice system. By neglecting Sarah’s urgent medical needs, the Defendants have perpetuated systemic inequalities and further marginalized her as a member of a vulnerable group, breached her Section 15 Charter rights, violating her right to equal treatment and amplifying the existing disparities faced by Indigenous women.”

The family is seeking damages, plus costs and interest, in a to-be-determined amount.

Province struck committee to examine deaths in custody

Denny was the second Mi’kmaw prisoner to die in a provincial facility in 2023. Peter Paul, 27, died in the Cape Breton Correctional Facility in January. The two deaths sparked calls for a public inquiry.

In response, the provincial Department of Justice announced in June that it would establish a “Deaths-in-Custody Review Committee.” Chaired by Medical Examiner Dr. Matt Bowes, the committee “will examine the facts and circumstances leading up to a death and make recommendations to the Justice Minister to help prevent similar deaths in the future,” the province said in a news release.

“It will examine two recent deaths of persons in custody of the Province and more in the future as required.”

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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