Vitalité ordered to pay $40,000 to nurse fired after workplace assault

New Brunswick's francophone health authority has been ordered to pay $40,000 to a nurse it fired in the aftermath of a brutal workplace assault.

Arbitrator Michel Doucet upheld a grievance filed by the New Brunswick Nurses Union against Vitalité Health Network over the November 2021 dismissal of Natasha Poirier.

The nurse manager at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton was assaulted by a patient's husband on March 11, 2019, leaving her unable to return to her job.

The decision, issued on Tuesday, says Vitalité violated the collective agreement by failing to make sufficient efforts to find another role or job for Poirier.

Poirier, who has published a a book about her experience, says it affirms how she felt about her treatment by Vitalité.

"It gives me closure," she said in an interview Thursday. "I'm very happy."

Vitalité won't contest decision

Frédéric Finn, Vitalité's vice-president of employee experience, said in an emailed statement that the health authority disagrees with the arbitrator's assessment of its efforts to accommodate Poirier, but won't seek a review or appeal of the decision.

The nurses' union said it wouldn't comment.

Poirier was attacked by a man who wanted his wife moved to a quieter room in a unit Poirier managed.

Bruce (Randy) Van Horlick pulled Poirier from her chair by her hair, punched her on the temple, threw her against a wall, twisted her arm and several fingers backward, and assaulted another nurse, Teresa Thibeault, who tried to intervene.

The 11-minutes attack left her with a brain injury, daily chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder.

Bruce (Randy) Van Horlick, 70, leaves the Moncton courthouse Thursday after testifying about the events of March 11, 2019 that led to his arrest and charges of assaulting a nurse at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre.
Bruce (Randy) Van Horlick shown leaving the Moncton courthouse after testifying about the events of March 11, 2019. (Shane Magee/CBC)

Van Horlick was sentenced to six months in jail in 2020. Poirier sued the 74-year-old, who was ordered to pay her $1.3 million. Poirier has said she has not received any money.

She was receiving benefits through a WorkSafeNB claim after the attack while on medical leave. The arbitration decision says Vitalité covered an additional $4,000 of Poirier's expenses that weren't covered by WorkSafeNB before opting to stop the payments.

It's a step that frustrated Poirier, and led to an October 2020 email in which she wrote she had lost confidence in Vitalité.

In 2021, there were discussions about what role Poirier could take when returning to work. The decision says Poirier testified she wanted to return to work, and felt guilty she was unable to do so while her co-workers faced enormous challenges.

One option considered was a vaccination clinic in a Dieppe arena, but WorkSafeNB recommended less than 10 hours per week and "no large clinics with many people."

Poirier said the clinic wasn't suitable because of the amount of people, lighting and other factors that would negatively affect her health. She discussed the prospect with WorkSafeNB and her psychologist. They concluded that type of clinic wasn't a good environment for her to work in.

Daniel Arseneau, Vitalité's regional co-ordinator for health and safety, told other Vitalité staff that WorkSafeNB had advised to "cease efforts for the return" of Poirier. The message said she wouldn't return to Vitalité "because this environment is causing harmful effects to her mental health."

Nathalie Nadeau-Plourde, Vitalité's director of employee experience, then wrote to other staff asking "I would like to know what the employer can legally do to terminate this employee?"

The email says Poirier "refused both accommodations" proposed, though the arbitrator found no evidence that one of the options was ever presented to Poirier.

The Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre /  Centre hospitalier universitaire Dr-Georges-L.-Dumont in Moncton on April 7, 2022, ext view of building and signage.
Poirier worked as a nurse manager at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton. (Shane Magee/CBC)

WorkSafeNB had informed Vitalité in October 2021 that having Poirier resume her job would cause a "significant deterioration" in her condition. A letter said she would have "permanent restrictions due to her compensable condition preventing her from returning to work at Vitalité."

Vitalité staff then decided to terminate Poirier's employment.

The decision says she felt like the employer had wanted to unburden itself, and the way in which she was treated amplified the effects of her medical condition.

The arbitrator had to decide if Vitalité met its duty to accommodate Poirier under the collective agreement up to the point of undue hardship — or the point at which accommodation conditions became significantly onerous for the employer, according to the decision.

Vitalité argued during the arbitration hearing that Poirier's medical situation rendered the employment contract unenforceable, and that it had satisfied its duty to accommodate.

30 days to pay

The union argued Vitalité rushed to dismiss her and didn't take steps to find other ways to accommodate her in public-service jobs outside the health network.

"In this case, the evidence submitted by the employer does not allow me to conclude that it made any attempt that could reasonably be interpreted as being an effort to accommodate to the point of undue hardship," Doucet wrote.

Doucet awarded her $40,000 in compensation, based on amounts paid in similar cases. The decision gives Vitalité 30 days to pay Poirier.