An Inuk woman from Tuktoyaktuk has filed a more than $6.5-million lawsuit alleging she was sterilized against her wishes at Yellowknife’s Stanton Territorial Hospital.
The doctor who performed the surgery denies the claim. As first reported by the CBC, the woman filed the lawsuit with the NWT Supreme Court in April 2021 against Dr Andrew Kotaska and the territorial government.
According to the claim, the woman – who Cabin Radio is not naming – had surgery at the hospital in July 2019 to remove a cyst on her right ovary, which was causing her abdominal and pelvic pain.
Kotaska, an obstetrician and gynecologist who was formerly president of the NWT Medical Association, performed the surgery with an anesthesiologist and nurse.
The claim states the woman and her husband told Kotaska a day prior to the surgery that she did not want any form of permanent birth control, like a tubal ligation, and the couple was considering having more children.
Yet, according to the suit, Kotaska removed both of the woman’s fallopian tubes, rendering her sterile.
Doctor submits defence
In a statement of defence, Kotaska said the woman repeatedly assured him neither she nor her husband wanted to have any more children. He said while the woman declined to have her left fallopian tube removed, he explained that might be required if issues were discovered during surgery.
Kotaska said he determined the woman had pelvic congestion syndrome – a chronic condition attributed to varicose veins forming below the abdomen – and would benefit from the removal of both fallopian tubes.
The woman alleges an anesthesia record – not included in the court file – noted a number of irregularities during the surgery.
Her claim states that record shows Kotaska stated: “Let’s see if I can find a reason to take the left tube.” The doctor denies making such a statement.
According to the woman’s claim, the record states Kotaska removed her left fallopian tube and ovary despite the nurse and anesthesiologist reminding him that the woman did not consent to the procedure.
The woman said she learned she had been permanently sterilized the day after the surgery. Her claim states the hospital’s medical director apologized and indicated a review would take place.
Kotaska said he planned to explain the decision to remove the left fallopian tube to the woman but, before he had a chance, the anesthesiologist told the woman he had done so against her “express consent” without explaining Kotaska’s justification.
The woman’s claim states the incident caused her anxiety, humiliation, and a permanent injury that will prevent her from having more children.
The woman is seeking $380,000 in general damages for pain and suffering, $6.5 million in punitive aggravated and exemplary damages, and $100,000 in special damages.
The claim alleges Kotaska’s “conduct was high-handed, oppressive and malicious” and his “actions were beyond negligence as they were intentional, offensive and outrageous.”
“If the allegations as alleged are true, as we say they are, this is an extremely serious assault on the body of a woman who is being treated by this particular surgeon,” the woman’s lawyer, Steven Cooper, told Cabin Radio.
The suit further claims the NWT government is vicariously liable for the conduct of employees at the hospital and, in this case, failed in its oversight, breached a duty of care, and acted negligently.
Kotaska told Cabin Radio by email he could not comment on the matter as it is before the court. His statement of defence asserts that he “exercised appropriate medical judgement” and denies he breached the standard of care required.
David Maguire, a spokesperson for the NWT’s health authority, told Cabin Radio the authority could not comment on matters before the court nor allegations of liability.
The suit notes the forced and coerced sterilization of Indigenous women is a historical issue in Canada that continues today.
Cooper is part of the team leading a proposed $550-million class action lawsuit in Alberta seeking damages for Indigenous women who were sterilized without their informed consent at the province’s public hospitals before December 14, 2018.
Correction: March 14, 2022 – 21:29 MT. This story previously stated Dr Andrew Kotaska is president of the NWT Medical Association. In fact, he is the former president of the association.