Loretta P. Merritt spoke to Collingwood Today on abuse victims from the Huronia Regional Centre struggling with the class-action process and outcome.
Marie Slark was hopeful when former residents of the Huronia Regional Centre (HRC) came together in a class-action to sue the province for forcing them to linger for years in an abusive and toxic environment.
She was taken to the former Orillia facility for people with developmental disabilities when she was seven years old, enduring all sorts of abuses until she was let out at age 20.
Maybe, she thought hopefully when the $2-billion claim was launched, she could buy her own home.
But in the end, the case was settled for $35 million. And for years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, the maximum former residents could receive was $42,000.
“It wasn’t really worth going to court for,” said Slark, now 64 and living independently in an apartment in Toronto. “Those who don’t speak only got $2,000” no matter how long they lived at the Orillia facility or what they endured.
If she and other people who knew them hadn’t spoken out for them, her brother, Tommy, and sister, Karen, would have received nothing more than the $2,000 minimum, she added.
The class size was estimated by the court to be 4,308 people who were still alive in 2013. But the exact number was never fully determined.
In the end, 1,705 claims were accepted.
When Toronto lawyer Loretta Merritt argues passionately that individual lawsuits are often a better approach for victims of historic institutional abuse, particularly those involving sexual abuse, than class actions, she points to the HRC case, along with a series of other settlements in Ontario, including several institutions in Simcoe County, which are now all closed.
“I think an individual action is a good idea a lot of the time,” said Merritt.
An individual plaintiff is in the driver’s seat, directing its course. So they, not the lawyers, decide whether to settle or not, she said.
Merritt adds that they have the opportunity to have their own individual story told and they can customize the settlement for their own individual needs.
But a big part of her argument is the financial outcome.
Class-actions can be to the defendant’s advantage, allowing them to pay “pennies on the dollar” for those who come forward and collect damages under the class proceeding, she said. They could also get back any settlement fund money that isn’t paid out.
And any abuse survivors who don’t come forward to collect their money under the class-action and haven’t already opted out, no longer have a chance to claim anything. The class-action extinguishes future claims whether victims are aware of the class-action or not.
“They can get a whole lot more money” through individual lawsuits, she said. “I’m talking many multiples” of what class members have been getting in Ontario.
She points to settlement decisions in several local historic institutional abuse cases involving thousands of victims:
- The court approved a final settlement for former HRC residents in December 2013 for $35 million. The lawyers’ cut was $8.5 million, according to Merritt’s analysis.
- The Sheila Morrison School for learning disabilities in Utopia, which is between Barrie and Angus, resulted in a $4-million court-approved settlement in March 2013. Class members received a maximum of $50,000. Merrit found that the lawyers were paid $1.1 million.
- In another class-action involving several institutions across the province, residents of the former Edgar Adult Occupational Centre near Horseshoe Valley received a maximum of $42,000. The total settlement approved by the court in April 2016 for residents at Edgar, Muskoka Centre and several other institutions was nearly $36 million. The lawyers received $3.7 million.
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