TORONTO - Fifty-one-year-old Stephen Burnstad went in for surgery to remove a cancerous stomach tumour, but he never made it out alive.

His widow Norma was suspicious about her husband’s death and when an anonymous caller told her to dig deeper, she took action. She arranged for an independent autopsy and was shocked by the findings.

The pathologist’s report concluded that Stephen’s death was caused by an “acute intra-peritoneal hemorrhage due to vascular injury complicating laparoscopic gastrectomy,” or in other words, a bleed into the belly as a result of injury to a blood vessel.

Norma decided to take legal action against the surgeon. Her lawsuit alleges “surgical error” likely caused the internal bleeding that ultimately resulted in Stephen’s death; and that she was “misinformed” by the doctor about the cause of death.

Norma told CTV’s W5: “If [the surgeon] was in the room when it happened, so I think that when you hemorrhage, the doctor would know.”

However, little did Norma know that with her legal claim, she would be going up against a Goliath — a powerful organization based in Ottawa called the Canadian Medical Protective Association (CMPA).

It has a $5 billion war chest, which is used, in part, to provide doctors with legal support in court to fight malpractice suits.

Doctors pay dues to be members of the CMPA, but provinces pay the physicians back; in some cases up to 90 per cent, less a small fee.

According to former CMPA lawyer Paul Harte, it means: “Taxpayers at the end of the day are footing the bill.”

Harte, who now represents plaintiffs as a medical malpractice lawyer, told CTV’s W5:

“[The CMPA] will spend whatever it takes to protect the doctor's reputation.”

In one case, Harte says his small firm went up against 27 lawyers in court, all paid for by the CMPA.

The former CMPA lawyer also says over a 10-year period, approximately 75 per cent of Canadians lost at trial going up against the CMPA.

The CMPA’s own 2019 annual report notes that of the cases that went to court that year, 90 per cent were found in favour of the doctor.

CMPA CEO & Executive Director Dr. Lisa Calder says the CMPA supports doctors, but also financially supports patients who have been harmed by medical error.

Calder told CTV’s W5: “The goal for us is to actually not go to court and not get into trial. The goal for us is to really try and establish as soon as we can, was there negligence that occurred.”

Calder also disputes the suggestion the CMPA is funded by taxpayer dollars. She says, “Each provincial medical association negotiates a reimbursement program with the province. The CMPA is not party to those negotiations.”

Norma Burnstad says she’s not discouraged by the slow pace of the litigation, almost three years now, against a surgeon she believes was responsible for her husband’s death.

Norma is hopeful she’s one of the few who win their court case.

“I’m in this for the long haul, Sandie. Steven didn’t deserve this. My boys didn’t deserve this.”

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