Judge rules in favor of provincial government in St. Anthony air ambulance case

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Gary Kean
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Jim Bennett, the lawyer representing St. Anthony and area groups in the dispute over the relocation of the air ambulance service, is seen prior to court being called in Corner Brook in this file photo.

CORNER BROOK  The Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador has ruled that former provincial health minister Jerome Kennedy had the authority to decide to relocate the air ambulance from St. Anthony to Goose Bay in 2010.

The Town of St. Anthony challenged the provincial government’s decision and argued its case in court before Justice William Goodridge in Corner Brook between October 2012 and February 2013.

Friday, Goodridge released his written decision, ruling that the applicant had not proven any misconduct by the minister in making the controversial move.

“The decision was lawfully made and the court has no role to substitute its discretion for that of the minister,” Goodridge wrote in his decision.

The fixed-wing aircraft had been stationed in St. Anthony for decades when it was moved by the provincial government in June 2010.

The town argued that the air ambulance base was of significant value to the St. Anthony and the surrounding communities from both economic and health care perspectives. It strongly opposed the decision and challenged government’s decision on the grounds it violated the rules of natural justice and was unlawful.

The town said the decision violated an agreement reached in 1981 that the province would provide health care services to Labrador and northern Newfoundland.

Further, the town charged government was abusing its power and the decision was meant to punish residents in the political district of The Straits-White Bay North for not electing a Progressive Conservative candidate in a byelection held in October 2009.

The town also argued Kennedy’s decision relied on a flawed consultant’s report and the minister was improperly motivated to move the service to Labrador.

In his decision, Goodridge said the agreement reached in 1981 did not obligate the province to maintain an air ambulance service in St. Anthony specifically. In fact, the jude noted the agreement’s language recognized the government’s “discretion and flexibility to change its policies” in providing health care to the region.

Goodridge said there was a sequence of events, preceding the byelection in October 2009, involving discussions of the air ambulance service which led up to the decision to relocate it in 2010. Among them were two incidents involving delayed response times of the air ambulance service to Labrador which ended negatively for the people requiring medical services.

“The precipitating events — delayed response time to Labrador — occurred before anyone knew of the byelection possibility,” said Goodridge in considering whether the decision was designed to punish the district’s electorate.

The judge also did not agree with the town that the consultant’s report was deliberately deficient so it would support government’s stance.

“I agree that another consultant using a different methodology or looking at more data could arrive at a different recommendation,” Goodridge wrote. “However, differences of recommendations can arise among consultants and such differences do not equate to flaw or error by one. The minister and cabinet members had no basis to suspect flaw or error, and they acted reasonably in relying on the consultant’s report as part of several factors considered before making the decision to relocate the air ambulance base.”

Goodridge also ruled that the town had not proven Kennedy had abused his public office or acted in bad faith in making the decision.

“Finding of fact in civil matters must arise from the evidence — direct or circumstantial — presented in court, and that evidence must satisfy the burden of proof on a balance of probabilities,” wrote Goodridge. “Finding of fact in civil matters do not arise from suspicions.”

Through a discovery provided by Kennedy — who was not compelled to testify at the hearing, Goodridge heard reasons why government decided to make the move. There had been the serious incidents in Labrador involving tardy response times in the months leading up to the decision. An analysis of the service had indicated that more flights originated out of Goose Bay, that the population base in Labrador was bigger than that of the St. Anthony area and Goose Bay was more centrally located geographically in the region serviced.

With the large amount of ongoing industrial activity in Labrador and the growing likelihood of the Lower Churchill Falls hydroelectricity development becoming a reality, government decided that Goose Bay would be a better location for the air ambulance service.

Goodridge said the decision was typical of the thousands of other decisions government has to make.

“Some may benefit from a decision more than others and some will be dissatisfied,” he stated. “It is not the court’s role to interfere with discretionary and policy-oriented decisions lawfully made by the government.”

Organizations: St. Anthony and Area Chamber of Commerce, St. Anthony and Area Concerned Citizens Committee

Geographic location: St. Anthony, Newfoundland and Labrador, Goose Bay Corner Brook

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