Father cannot introduce new evidence in Bethany Hughes case, court rules
CALGARY – Lawrence Hughes will not be able to present new evidence on behalf of his daughter Bethany’s estate in the case looking into her death, a provincial court has ruled.
Hughes has been trying to prove his daughter’s death was caused partly by conflicting legal or medical advice from lawyers and members of the religious group Watchtower Society, which represents the Jehovah’s Witness faith in Canada.
The Alberta Court of Appeal concluded, however – in a written decision released on Monday – that there was no error by the chambers judge who made the original decision to exclude new evidence last year.
Bethany Hughes, who died Sept. 5, 2002, from acute myeloid leukemia, became the centre of a medical and legal battle over whether she should receive blood transfusions.
Following the church’s teachings, Bethany refused the blood and became a temporary ward of the province. She died about four months later despite being given 80 transfusions against her will.
In Monday’s ruling, the province’s top court also dismissed counter claims by the Watchtower Society and its lawyers, David Gnam and Shane Brady, that they be removed from Hughes’ wrongful death lawsuit.
The court decision said it found “some evidence of involvement of Brady and Gnam in the medical events after Bethany left the Alberta Children’s Hospital,” which led to the court’s choice to reject the counter claims.
The scaled-down claim will now go back before a case management judge as it moves toward a trial.
‘I was her guardian’
Legal judgments can sometimes wear disguises. What appears to be a loss — as did, at first blush, the ruling yesterday dismissing Lawrence Hughes’ appeal of a lawsuit against the Canadian branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses –may, in fact, offer subtle victory.
That, at least, is Mr. Hughes’ impression, as he continues doggedly, nearly seven years after the death of his daughter, Bethany, to hold the sect’s governing Watchtower Society and its lawyers responsible for her death. “I see it as a win,” he said yesterday.
For a man who has lost his daughter, been shunned by his surviving children, divorced by his wife and gone bankrupt from legal costs, reduced to defending himself in court, the instinct to imagine the smallest of triumphs must be powerful.
But Mr. Hughes is not just thinking wishfully. Legal scholars following the case sense, too, that in their ruling dismissing Mr. Hughes’ appeals of a lower court ruling, three higher court justices appear to have secreted within what could be worrying setbacks for this legally aggressive sect accustomed to mobilizing the courts to block members from receiving life-saving transfusions against their family’s or doctor’s advice.
“To me, what is significant in this judgment is what it does not say, more than what it says,” says Alice Woolley, a legal ethicist at the University of Calgary.
What it most clearly does not say is that Mr. Hughes is necessarily wrong in claiming that his daughter received problematic advice from lawyers working not just for her, but also for a religious body intent on seeing her denied the blood she needed. “If I was advising [the Watchtower Society and its lawyers] I would now say, ‘At some point, this is no longer going to work out for you,’ ” Ms. Woolley says.
When Bethany Hughes died in the summer of 2002, her story was national news; the girl, just turned 17, had been diagnosed earlier that year with acute myeloid leukemia, but had fought, legally and physically, blood transfusions prescribed by doctors on religious grounds, her resistance abetted by lawyers from a firm that, by all available evidence, is a branch of the Watchtower Society itself, retaining the church as its primary client — a “captive law firm” as one judge described Glen How and Associates, employer of Bethany’s lawyers David Gnam and Shane Brady. The firm is even located within the Watchtower Society’s Georgetown, Ont., compound.
This appeared to present potential conflict between the Church’s interests –promoting its belief that the Book of Acts prohibits transfusions — and the unique interests of a sick girl.
The sect’s lawyers, her devout mother, the “hospital liaisons” sent by the society to stay constantly at Bethany’s bedside, all, one judge ruled as Bethany lay ill, had persuaded her with “incorrect information,” put “undue influence” on the girl, clouding her ability to independently make decisions.
Mr. Hughes envisions his case making a big enough impact in the medical and legal communities that it will end what he believes are ongoing and widspread legal injustices against patients like Bethany: Jehovah’s Witnesses lacking a secular, independent advocate, pressured to accept a potentially deadly anti-blood doctrine.