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REF NO.: 50
SUBJECT: Memorial University wins appeal in Young case
DATE: Oct. 15
The Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal has found in favour of Memorial University in its appeal of the case of former student Wanda Young. The finding is being welcomed by the university and its School of Social Work.
“From the outset, the university argued that the professors had acted out of good faith, with the highest professional standards and out of a sense of legal duty,” said Peter Morris, associate director of university relations. “There was no malice and no negligence. They had some reason to be concerned and they felt they had a legal obligation under the Child Welfare Act to report that concern.”
Ms. Young had successfully sued the university and Social Work professors Leslie Bella and William Rowe (former director of the School of Social Work). Ms. Young claimed that the university and the professors had breached a “duty of care” owed to students when they reported a suspected case of child abuse based on an academic paper written by her in 1994. The province’s Child Protection Services waited two years until 1996 before investigating the report after which Ms. Young was quickly cleared of any suspicion in the matter.
In 2003 a jury awarded Ms. Young a total of $839,400 in damages relating to her complaint. The university disagreed with that decision citing errors made by the jury, Ms. Young’s solicitor and the trial judge. The appeal was heard in June of this year and the decision favouring Memorial University was rendered in October.
Mr. Morris said the Appeal Court decision is important for the university. “This has clarified the issue and the question of what exactly is the responsibility of a professor when faced with a reasonable suspicion,” he said. “Should they report it or not? Our people did report it because they thought they had a professional and legal responsibility to do so. The Appeal Court decision confirmed that this was the right course of action.”
The case has had an impact on the School of Social Workat Memorial. Dr. Shelly Birnie-Lefcovitch, director of the school, said that the decision was important for the School. “There is no doubt that last year’s decision cast a long shadow over the School,” he said. “It left a number of questions unanswered. We felt it was the wrong decision. We felt our professors had acted with the highest professional standards. This Appeal Court decision will provide reassurance to our faculty in terms of how they exercise their best professional social work judgment. Also, beyond the School, the decision serves as a reminder to all individuals who have information indicating that a child is or may be in need of protection that they are required to report that information and they need not fear legal action, so long as their report is not made maliciously or without reasonable cause.”
Dr. Birnie-Lefcovitch added that the matter and the subsequent finding of the original trial also led to a separate investigation by the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Social Workers (NLASW). That independent investigation was conducted in early 2004. The NLASW found that the actions taken by Drs. Bella and Rowe were “deemed to be reasonable actions of a social worker in this context”. “The NLASW findings, first, and now the Appeal Court ruling certainly confirm that our professors acted appropriately. We hope we can now close the book on the matter,” he said.
Mr. Morris added that the university was sympathetic to Ms. Young’s situation. “There is no doubt that this matter has had a profound impact on her and one can’t help but feel for the situation she has endured,” he said. “But we have always held, and this has been supported by both the Appeal Court and the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Social Workers, that as regrettable as the misfortune is that befell her, it was not the result of any action by the university or our professors.”
Ms. Young has already received over $300,000 from the original award and the university’s insurance company, which had paid out that amount, has indicated that it will seek its return.
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For further information, please contact Peter Morris, associate director University Relations, Memorial University of Newfoundland, telephone (709)737-2455 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.