Family seeking more than $1.5M for Samantha Piercey's 'wrongful' N.L. prison death

The family of a 28-year-old woman who died at the Clarenville women's prison is suing the provincial Department of Justice, the superintendent of prisons, and psychiatrist Dr. David Craig for more than $1.5 million in damages.

Samantha Piercey of Corner Brook died in a prison cell in Clarenville on May 26, 2018. A correctional officer found her hanging from a bedsheet from a vent in the ceiling.

"As a result of the defendants' negligence, Piercey suffered physical, emotional and psychological damages and ultimately a wrongful death," reads a statement of claim filed Dec. 17 at the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Piercey was incarcerated for breaching court-ordered conditions after she was charged with assault. 

While in custody, Piercey attempted to end her own life by slashing her wrists with a razor on April 22, 2018. After receiving medical treatment she was sent to the Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville.

A suicide-risk assessment there on April 26, 2018, identified her as being at risk for self-harm, and she was prohibited from having razors or any other sharp objects.

Submitted

On May 15, 2018, Piercey was seen by Craig, a psychiatrist who is contracted by the Justice Department to provide psychiatric services to inmates in Newfoundland and Labrador correctional facilities.

According to the statement of claim filed by Lisa Piercey, Samantha Piercey's mother, Craig did not identify further mental health issues, stated in his report that Piercey was not suicidal, and lifted the prohibition on her having razors or sharp objects.

On the evening of her death, Piercey was left alone in a cell. Court documents claim a correctional officer failed to properly complete an institutional count. 

"Specifically, she failed to look into Samantha's cell and observe her," says the statement of claim.

"This failure caused Samantha to go unsupervised for a period of approximately one hour and 45 minutes. This failure and delay caused and/or contributed to Samantha's death."

Psychiatrist accused of negligence

The lawsuit claims Craig failed to give Piercey proper medical treatment, and says he was negligent by "failing to assess the adequacy of Samantha's medication and to prescribe appropriate medication."

Colleen Connors/CBC

It also alleges Craig was negligent by "misdiagnosing Piercey and failing to consult with other psychiatrist and health professionals, despite knowing that Piercey had been treated for a suicide attempt before her admission to the Clarenville facility."

Craig is also accused of negligence for lifting Piercey's prohibition to having razors or sharp objects.

'Outrageous' conduct

The court document also uses strong language to describe the conduct of the defendants.

"[Their] conduct was outrageous, flagrant and in direct contradiction of the law and policy governing prison employees," it says.

"The defendants knew, or ought to have known, that their conduct would cause Piercey to suffer psychiatric damages."

Seeking relief

The more than $1.5 million is sought for various damages, including loss of care, guidance and companionship of Piercey, who was the mother of two children.

None of the three defendants has filed a statement of defence yet.

Craig's care has been questioned before. In March 2011, Newfoundland and Labrador Citizens' Representative Barry Fleming called for Craig to be removed from his duties in the justice system, after issuing a report that found inmates at HMP, some of whom had complained about being taken off prescribed medicine, do not receive the level of psychiatric care that they would receive outside.

However, a peer review the following year said Craig "meets the standard of care, where that standard is comparable service provision in other provinces."

Piercey one of five recent prison deaths

A report into the deaths of two men and two women inside Newfoundland and Labrador's prison system released last February called for systemic issues inside the prison walls to be addressed.

The four inmates — Doug Neary, Skye Martin, Samantha Piercey and Christopher Sutton — all died alone in their cells between Aug. 31, 2017 and June 30, 2018.

A redacted version of the report was given to media, with 17 recommendations to build a new prison, create mental health units in the existing institutions and cut down on the drug trade inside Her Majesty's Penitentiary.

"The current system cannot adequately address mental health and addictions issues," the report stated. "The corrections system in this province has not been a priority and it has been under-resourced for so long, it has now reached a breaking point."

A fifth inmate,  Jonathan Henoche, 33, died at Her Majesty's Penitentiary on Nov. 6. The province's coroner ruled his death was a homicide. No one has been charged in connection with Henoche's death.

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