Former chief medical examiner’s wrongful dismissal trial halted over defamation threats

A civil lawsuit launched by Alberta’s former chief medical examiner, Dr. Anny Sauvageau, was halted on Friday after former provincial justice minister Jonathan Denis threatened to sue Sauvageau for defamation on the basis of his sworn testimony to date.

Sauvageau was the province’s top medical examiner from mid-2011 until she was notified in late 2014 that her contract would not be renewed the following year.

The trial began last Friday. Sauvageau is suing the province for $7.6 million in damages for lost income and benefits. An earlier version of the lawsuit named Denis as the defendant in his capacity as justice minister, but his name was removed after he resigned from politics in 2015.

Sauvageau’s attorney, Allan Garber, told the court Friday morning that Thursday night he received an emailed letter from Calgary attorney Kyle Shewchuk, representing Denis. Shewchuk is a lawyer with the Guardian Law Group in Calgary, of which Denis is a founding partner.

Garber read portions of the letter aloud in court. CBC News obtained a copy of the letter.

“Your client… has engaged in a seven-year campaign of defamation and harassment against Mr. Denis,” the letter reads. “We have closely followed the ongoing trial of Dr. Sauvageau and are aware that…the defamation of Mr. Denis by Dr. Sauvageau has continued unabated.”

He continues: “Mr. Denis is a respected and recognized lawyer and businessman and will not tolerate these tortious actions against him. These actions must cease immediately and we reserve the right to refer to this correspondence if the defamation of Dr. Sauvageau continues.

Court of Queen’s Bench Judge Doreen Sulyma told the court she had never seen anything quite like the letter in her 25 years on the bench and 25 years in private legal practice.

Sulyma said the letter was “unprecedented”. The judge asked Garber to file an order requiring Denis and his attorney to appear before her in person on Monday afternoon.

The letter says Guardian Law Group is investigating a defamation claim against Sauvageau and plans to commission transcripts of the court case.

“We look forward to hearing from you and hope that you will advise your client to govern herself accordingly,” the letter reads.

Sauvageau did not return to the witness stand on Friday.

“Afraid” to testify

Sauvageau filed an affidavit with the court Friday in response to the letter from the law firm representing Denis.

In it, she insisted she never defamed Denis, but said the warning had a chilling effect.

She said she was still afraid to testify at trial even though her lawyer told her she was protected because her sworn testimony is privileged.

“I can’t afford to defend a libel suit,” Sauvageau wrote.

Jonathan Denis served as Alberta’s Minister of Justice from 2012 to 2015. (Radio Canada)

“I am still afraid of being sued by Jonathan Denis, QC,” Sauvageau said in the letter. “The financial consequences of a lawsuit scare me all the more since I don’t have a job.”

Sauvageau’s lawyer described the letter from the lawyer representing Denis as an inappropriate threat.

“This is not coming from someone who may not know the integrity of trials and the importance of not harassing or harassing witnesses,” Garber said.

“It comes from the former attorney general…I think it’s an affront to the integrity of the trial.”

Craig Neuman, a lawyer representing the provincial government, assured the court that his clients had no knowledge of or involvement in the defamation threat.

“I know it will be obvious to the court, but I’m not acting for Mr. Denis,” Neuman said.