PARIS – One plaintiff lost her father in a nursing home last spring as the virus pandemic swept France. Another has fought for a year to keep her mother, isolated in another nursing home, out of depression.
They're among multiple family members and advocacy groups who appeared in a Paris court Wednesday, in an unusual, collective legal effort to get answers from French authorities and companies about their management of the pandemic in homes for the elderly and disabled.
The families are trying to figure out who can be held accountable after the virus claimed the lives of tens of thousands of French nursing home residents, and families were locked out and left in the dark about what was happening to their loved ones.
As defense lawyers sought to dismiss the legal effort as frivolous and shaky on procedural grounds, frustrated families in the courtroom gasped and sighed.
“Our parents are dying!” said Clara Bouaziz, whose father died early in the pandemic.
Wednesday's hearing was the first step in a likely years-long legal marathon. Families hope it will shine a light on what went wrong last year as the virus devastated France’s oldest generation and deprived their children and grandchildren of a chance to help or even say goodbye.
“We want to ensure that mistakes aren’t repeated, that someone is held responsible,” said plaintiff Sabrina Deliry, who has mobilized families around France since her mother’s Paris nursing home was first locked down a year ago.
The hearing involved a special measure to demand access to documents or other material involving decisions at nursing homes. It is among dozens of legal cases around the alleged mismanagement of the pandemic that are working through the French justice system, along with similar efforts in neighboring Spain, Italy and beyond.
The French procedure targets several nursing homes, the national health agency DGS, the Paris public hospital authority and others. Plaintiffs include family members of nursing home residents, doctors and associations.
Their complaint focuses on multiple issues at French homes for the elderly and disabled during the first half of 2020: mask shortages for residents and staff; testing shortages; the use of a powerful sedative called Rivotril on some residents while homes were locked down; and opaque decisions on which residents received hospital treatment for the virus — and which were left to suffer or die in their nursing homes.
A dozen defense lawyers spoke at the hearing, arguing that the families were asking for documents that don't exist or documents protected by medical privacy regulations, or that their clients did nothing wrong. They focused on technical issues and didn't address the larger questions about mismanagement of the pandemic.
Paul-Albert Iweins, representing the National Public Health Agency, said that digging for the documents the families want takes a lot of time for the agency’s small staff, that would be “infinitely better spent fighting the pandemic.”
An initial decision in the case is expected June 9.
After France recorded Europe’s first virus infections and deaths a year ago, French officials shut down nursing homes to outsiders and kept residents inside. The government said it had to act fast to protect the country’s most vulnerable populations. But many families say the lockdown deprived them of decision-making abilities for their loved ones, and that in some cases the enforced isolation worsened cognitive and other health problems.
Recognizing these concerns, President Emmanuel Macron relaxed some rules for nursing homes ahead of everything else as France's first lockdown eased. But for many, the damage had already been done. And new waves of infections in the summer, fall and winter sent many nursing homes back into temporary, repeated shutdowns.
French officials say mask shortages at the outset of the pandemic were beyond their control and a global problem, and note that masks have been mandatory and widely available since last summer. Nursing home directors have defended their decisions to lock out visitors given the vulnerabilities of their residents, and some have sought compromise solutions to help ease the strain on the elderly.
Official figures show that nearly 25,000 people with the virus have died in French nursing homes out of more than 87,000 lives lost nationwide — a death toll still climbing by hundreds every day. But thousands of other French nursing home residents who contracted COVID-19 died after being hospitalized, and studies suggest they make up as many as half of France’s overall virus victims. That is among the highest proportions worldwide.
Colleen Barry in Milan and Joe Wilson in Barcelona contributed.