HALIFAX - While the RCMP has reopened the investigation into the alleged rape of Rehtaeh Parsons, lawyer Ray Wagner says the Parsons family may have cause for a civil lawsuit against the Halifax Regional School Board.
Parsons, 17, died in hospital April 7 after attempting suicide three days earlier. Her mother, Leah Parsons, has said Rehtaeh's death was prompted by a sexual assault that led to bullying and harassment from her peers.
“When you're looking at a case like this, you're looking at, what is the duty of care?” says Wagner, about a potential civil suit against the Halifax Regional School Board. “Is there a duty of care for (the school) to act when they have information to suggest an individual is being bullied? If so, what actions did they take?”
Having attracted outrage within the province and internationally, Premier Darrell Dexter has launched independent reviews of the original RCMP investigation into Parsons' assault, and how the matter was dealt with by the HRSB. Wagner, who has spent over a decade representing the claimants in the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children class action, says it would likely be more difficult to prove the RCMP didn't act responsibly.
That's not to say he doesn't see an issue with how police handled the case.
“We go and put the three so-called suspects in a single room and nobody fesses up, you say, 'Oh, well we can't proceed. That's the end of it.' It seems to me to be a rather cavalier and superficial approach to a very serious crime that unfortunately is inflicted upon the female population, primarily.”
Recently, the family of California teenager Audrie Pott announced their intention to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the accused rapists who they believe drove Pott to her suicide in September 2012. The parents who own the home where the crime allegedly occurred will also be made defendants in the suit. While the cases appear tragically similar, Wagner warns that fatality law in Canada makes wrongful deaths less cost effective as parents would typically only be entitled to damages between $25,000 and $50,000.
“Maybe at the end of the day, Rehtaeh's parents each get maybe $25,000, maybe more maybe less,” says Wagner. “If you're going to spend five years litigating, pretty aggressively trying to establish a duty of care, the cost-benefit analysis quickly wears against the prudence of proceeding.”
Nevertheless, while justice for Rehtaeh may no longer be possible, Wagner says civil law can be a great deterrent against the institutions that failed her.
“If the school boards are becoming exposed to liability for these types of egregious situations when they fail to act, then clearly they're going to have to respond with policies that are going to be able to protect them from liability in the future,” he says. “Civil law is a very great tool for behaviour modification.”