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Psychiatric patients awarded nearly $10M in lawsuit over experimental treatments

'Those who were youths were harmed in a severe and lifelong manner that deserves particular attention,' judge finds
2021-02-12 gavel

Patients who were subjected to “degrading and inhumane” experimental treatments at the former Oak Ridge maximum-security psychiatric facility in Penetanguishene have been awarded a total of just under $10 million.

The awards for the 28 patients range from $1,000 up to $2.7 million for a vulnerable teenager in “mental agony” who was shackled naked to other patients, including a sex offender.

In June, Justice Edward M. Morgan of the Ontario Superior Court found psychiatrists Dr. Elliot Thompson Barker and Dr. Gary J. Maier, along with the Crown, liable for using pain as an instrument in a treatment program conducted between 1966 and 1983.

Through a series of programs involving patients in the so-called social therapy unit of what was then the Oak Ridge Division of the Penetanguishene Mental Health Centre, the doctors and the Crown breached their fiduciary duties to those in their care, and were also liable in battery of the patients.

The two doctors were largely influenced by the culture of the time in the development of treatment programs, which involved the use of high doses of hallucinogens and mind-altering drugs, confinement of naked men in a room for days on end, as well as one following a strict physical disciplinary regime. 

The use of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, also commonly known as 'acid') hit a breaking point in 1975 following a mass ‘trip’ in which 26 men were given the drug at once, leading to the demise of the decade-old program. 

DECISION

In his awards decision for general and punitive damages as well as income loss for some, Justice Morgan said the three programs in that unit where each plaintiff was harmed “in one degree or another” is the sole focus of the payout. 

Quoting from a 1965 court decision, Morgan said the point of the damages phase of the trial is to do “what can be done to alleviate the disaster to the victim,” and to determine the cost to live “as tolerably” as possible.

“To be clear, the plaintiffs were not wrongfully deprived of their liberty,” Justice Morgan wrote in this week’s decision. “But it is the lengthy period of psychological turmoil or harm that is relevant, not the deprivation of liberty itself.”

He described their total claim of $71 million to $75 million  averaging $2.5 million each  as “unprecedented in their quantum” and said the case can’t be compared to residential schools and Sixties Scoop class actions.

Instead, he decided on combined awards for all 28 patients totalling around $9.5 million.

Justice Morgan focused in on those who were still in adolescence when they were sent to Oak Ridge.

“While all of the plaintiffs were vulnerable in that they were institutionalized, were suffering from mental illness, and were owed fiduciary duties by the defendants, those who were youths were harmed in a severe and lifelong manner that deserves particular attention,” the judge wrote.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs and defendants declined comment given an appeal is possible and costs have not yet been determined.

Now called the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care, the facility is home to many people declared by the courts to be not guilty by reason of mental illness, or insanity as it was then described. They are locked up indefinitely, until they are deemed well. Some have been there for more than 40 years.

SOME OF THE PLAINTIFFS

Described as small, weak, confused and suicidal, Danny Joanisse was admitted to Oak Ridge for the first time in 1971 at the age of 15 and stayed for a year. He was sent back to a training school, where had been previously, and then he attacked another young student with a knife and cut off three of his own fingers. 

Joanisse was charged with attempted murder and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sent back to Oak Ridge where he spent “horrific” teen years, undergoing the psychologically painful programming.

He testified during the first phase of the trial, but died when Justice Morgan was deliberating.

At the time, he told the court: “The day I entered Oak Ridge was one of the scariest days of my life. I had just been transferred from a place where I was repeatedly sexually abused to an institution which housed adult males who had committed serious violent crimes, including rape and murder.

"I was physically small, even for my age, let alone among the other patients, and I just wanted to go back home.”

Justice Morgan found Joanisse was humiliated, degraded and deprived of any sense of security at Oak Ridge. He underwent treatments that caused lasting harm that effectively prevented him from reintegrating into society up until the last decade of his life and extended his paranoia, anxiety and mental anguish for the rest of his life.

The general damages award for Joanisse was $2.1 million, plus $600,000 in punitive damages.

An early psychiatric report found that, at age 15, Allen McMann had a number of personality disorders and indicated his overall prognosis for the future was “poor." 

In 1975, after running away, stealing and breaking into cars, he was sent to Oak Ridge at age 16, when he was described as a misbehaving schoolboy. For the next two years, he was placed with serial killers and sexual predators. 

McMann was found difficult to manage and placed in the program. In one session, he was paired with an older Oak Ridge patient – a notorious underworld killer from Montreal. In another program, he received Amytal-Ritalin, Amytal, alcohol, alcohol-Ritalin, and dexamyl treatments.

When he was released, he returned to committing thefts, break-ins and and other crimes, including aggravated sexual assault and also consumed street drugs.

McMann received general awards of $1 million, $500,000 in punitive damages and $385,000 in damages for lost income

Shauna Taylor, now a transgender woman, entered Oak Ridge as Vance Egglestone at age 20 after committing a rape in 1976. She was discharged three years later and then returned from January 1981 until July 1984.

In 1987, there was another violent sexual assault and she remained institutionalized until 2017.

During her first three years at Oak Ridge, she was intensely involved in the “detrimental” programs, which included cocktails of psychosis-inducing drugs. 

Taylor was awarded $500,000 in general damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. 

Reginald Barker, who died during the course of the first part of the trial, was 22 when he was sent to Oak Ridge in 1968 after killing a woman in a fantasy he thought would resolve lingering resentment toward his mother. He’d also sexually assaulted children and adults.

Barker was involved in all three programs, which included a 70-day-plus “particularly harmful” stint in a program they called defence disruptive therapy. 

But he pointed to the administration of the drug scopolamine, which induced a psychotic episode. He testified his psychotic condition was more extreme when he left Oak Ridge than when he arrived, resulting in more violent fantasies.

He spent the rest of his life in mental institutions.

The general damages award for Barker was $120,000

Russ Johnson, one of Canada’s most prolific serial killers and sexual predators, ended up in Oak Ridge in 1977. He had been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the killing of seven women and sexually assaulting at least 11 others. He was awarded general damages of $1,000.




About the Author: Marg. Bruineman, Local Journalism Initiative

Marg. Buineman is an award-winning journalist covering justice issues and human interest stories for BarrieToday.
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