Sask. government, forensic pathologist win new trial in $5M lawsuit

The Government of Saskatchewan and its chief forensic pathologist have won their appeal against a Court of Queen's Bench ruling that ordered $5 million be paid to a man who said he was unfairly assessed for a job. 

In 2017, a Saskatchewan jury found that Dr. Jeffrey Racette was unfairly assessed for employment by the province's chief forensic pathologist. 

Racette sued the provincial government for breach of contract and Dr. Shaun Ladham for inducing breach of contract. 

A jury found that Dr. Ladham and the coroner's office were either dishonest or acted in bad faith while assessing Dr. Racette's skills for a job at the Saskatchewan Coroners Service in 2011.

In April, 2018, the Government of Saskatchewan and Dr. Ladham appealed that decision, claiming that the trial judge admitted irrelevant, inadmissible and prejudicial evidence, among other errors.

  

In a 60-page decision handed down on Jan. 3, three judges from the Court of Appeal for Saskatchewan agreed that there was a significant "combination of errors" in the first trial. 

"In my view, the cumulative effect of the errors and shortcomings in this case compels the conclusion that there must be a new trial on liability and damages," wrote Justice Tholl in the decision. 

One of the errors outlined in the written judgment related to the closing address by Dr. Racette's lawyer, Bob Hrycan.

"Even then, it is doubtful that any limiting instruction could have overcome the prejudice created by the numerous problems with Dr. Racette's submissions to the jury and the damage to trial fairness caused by those closing submissions." - Justice Tholl

 

The address described Ladham as "a serial abuser," a "convicter of the innocent" and "above the law."

"We know that Dr. Ladham is ruthless. We know that he doesn't care who he hurts … Dr. Ladham is accountable to no one, respects no one, not the living, and certainly not the dead," said Hrycan in the closing address. 

The appeal court's written decision said parts of Hrycan's closing address were "inflammatory" and "completely improper." 

It said the trial judge should have offered a stronger caution to the jury.  

"Even then, it is doubtful that any limiting instruction could have overcome the prejudice created by the numerous problems with Dr. Racette's submissions to the jury and the damage to trial fairness caused by those closing submissions," wrote Tholl in the appeal court decision. 

But a submission to the court from Dr. Racette said it was a "model civil jury trial."

"He points to the lack of objections as an indication that the parties understood the issues at stake and were endeavouring to assist the jury in delivering an efficient adjudication," said Tholl's decision, referring to the submission. 

Dr. Racette's submission argued he was entitled to present evidence suggesting bad character about Dr. Ladham because it was responding to evidence that presented Dr. Ladham as being knowledgeable and professional. 

Tholl wrote that there was a lack of objection from counsel for Dr. Ladham and the government in the initial trial, but they had "overcome that difficulty." 

The appeal court granted a new trial on liability and damages. 

CBC has contacted Bob Hrycan for a response.