Former inmate awarded $38,500 in damages after 2016 fall at Springhill prison

The Springhill Institution is a Canadian federal corrections facility in Springhill, N.S. (Dave Irish/CBC - image credit)
The Springhill Institution is a Canadian federal corrections facility in Springhill, N.S. (Dave Irish/CBC - image credit)

A former inmate of a Nova Scotia prison has been awarded nearly $40,000 in damages after he slipped and fell in some water outside his cell in 2016 and continues to suffer from related health issues.

Ryan Zwicker, 42, was admitted to Springhill Institution, a Canadian federal corrections facility in Springhill, N.S., on Feb. 18, 2016, after being convicted of possessing narcotics for the purpose of trafficking.

The fall occurred on Feb. 25, about a week after he was admitted.

That evening, Zwicker was leaving his cell for scheduled recreation time outside, when he slipped on a puddle of water in the hall, fell and hit his head on the concrete floor.

He was knocked unconscious. Witnesses said Zwicker started convulsing and was taken to hospital.

In the days after his fall, Zwicker complained of nausea, vision and memory problems, headaches and extreme neck pain.

Zwicker's case was heard by the Nova Scotia Supreme Court last year. He argued that the defendant, the Attorney General of Canada, failed to "take reasonable care to prevent his injury from occurring."

He said the defendant was liable for his fall, and the losses and injuries that occurred afterward.

In a judgment released earlier this month, Supreme Court Justice D. Timothy Gabriel ruled the Attorney General of Canada, "failed to meet the standard of reasonable care which [Zwicker] was entitled to expect."

Cause of the fall

Gabriel's decision outlined the fall, what happened in the immediate aftermath, and how Zwicker continues to suffer from some health problems five years after his release.

Three inmates who were in their cells at the time of the fall testified in the case. Two reported seeing water on the floor before the fall. One said the liquid had been there for up to two hours before Zwicker's fall.

Timothy Thomas, who was one of three corrections officers on duty at the time, testified he did not see the fall, but he witnessed the aftermath.

Thomas said he helped move Zwicker after the fall and didn't see anything on the floor.

In his testimony, Thomas indicated that there was no particular policy of how a hazard, such as a spill, must be taken care of once it's been discovered.

"The absence of a policy governing the conduct of the staff on duty when a hazard is discovered is critical," Gabriel wrote in his decision.

"I acknowledge that [Correctional Service Canada] has myriad policies already, and it is not possible to conceive, much less regulate, every possible situation that could potentially arise in an institution as large as Springhill. However, it does not require either hindsight or clairvoyance to foresee that a wet floor would pose a significant risk to inmates and staff alike, particularly while inmates are being let out of their cells for recreation time."

Footage was overwritten

When the Court asked for the footage of the fall, it was told it had been overwritten.

The institution has a policy that requires footage be kept only for six days. If there had been an assault, the footage would have been kept longer to help with any future legal processes.

Neil Rideout, who was working as the security intelligence officer the evening of the fall, said he watched the video security footage to confirm Zwicker hadn't been assaulted.

"That would have ended my involvement," Rideout testified, adding that he was the only person to view the footage before it was overwritten.

In the days after the fall

Zwicker said the last thing he remembers before the fall is putting on his jacket. The next thing he remembers is being in an ambulance with prison guards, and feeling "a lot of pain in his neck and back."

He said he was told by the guards that he had fallen, and recalls the doctor telling him "he would be just fine."

He returned to the prison the same night, where his cellmate told him he had fallen in a puddle of water.

Patrick Callaghan/CBC
Patrick Callaghan/CBC

In the days after his fall, Zwicker reported that he had a sore neck and headache and he was feeling nauseous and lethargic.

"When he complained of his sore neck, he recalled two or three of the guards laughing and making offensive jokes at his expense," Gabriel said in his decision.

Gabriel added that Zwicker felt as if he wasn't "getting the medical attention he required, and that he was being treated poorly in general."

Zwicker continued to complain of nausea, lack of concentration and blurry vision, which was noted by the institution's doctor.

About a month after the fall, a personal report by Zwicker said he was still experiencing migraines, light-headedness and soreness. He requested Tylenol and muscle relaxants until he could be seen by a physiotherapist.

The aftermath

In early 2017, Zwicker was paroled to a halfway house on Brunswick Street in Halifax. During his parole, he was seen by his family physician twice, who said Zwicker had sustained a "bad concussion" while incarcerated.

He was given two prescriptions, including one for Valium, and a referral to a neurologist.

Before he could see the neurologist, Zwicker was sent back to the institution for violating the terms of his parole.

While in prison, Zwicker saw the neurologist who noted he suffered from headaches, visual and balance problems, fatigue, depression and anxiety. He was prescribed medication for his migraines.

Zwicker was officially released from the institution in February 2018. He has since seen another neurologist who agreed he had suffered a concussion.

He now lives in Toronto and is employed at a restaurant where he works "at a reduced level, which has negatively impacted what he can earn in this industry," Gabriel wrote.

Zwicker said he continues to experience short-term memory loss and debilitating headaches, which Gabriel agreed is linked "to the head trauma that he sustained on February 25, 2016."

In his ruling, Gabriel awarded Zwicker $30,000 in general damages, $20,000 for diminished earning capacity and $5,000 for the cost of future care, for a total of $55,000.

However, the justice noted that Zwicker failed to continue with treatments suggested by his doctors, which he believes would have alleviated some symptoms.

Due to this, Gabriel said the amount would be reduced by 30 per cent, "as a result of [Zwicker's] failure to mitigate his losses."

Instead, Zwicker will receive $38,500 in damages.