Paralyzed woman sues chiropractic for half billion

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An Alberta woman, paralyzed after her neck was manipulated by a chiropractor, has launched the biggest-ever class action suit against chiropractic in Canada.

The suit, filed yesterday in Edmonton, is asking for more than a half billion dollars in damages not only for the victim, Sandy Nette and her husband, David, but for an entire class âe" anyone in Alberta treated or harmed by chiropractors who deliver "inappropriate and non-beneficial adjustments."

The unprecedented lawsuit is groundbreaking because it is the first time lawyers have challenged the veracity of the fundamental underpinnings of chiropractic in a court of law in Canada. If successful, chiropractors in Alberta would have to repay a decade's worth of fees - about $400 million - to all patients of chiropractors who were injured by or received what the suit calls, "inappropriate and non-beneficial adjustments". Alberta pays out about $40 million a year in chiropractic billings.

Philip Tinkler, one of the lead lawyers on the class action suit, explained that most victims of chiropractic injury either lack the knowledge or resources to pursue a lawsuit. Tinkler says the class action suit assists not only the Nettes but hundreds if not thousands of people like them. He said his firm took on the challenge, "for the justice of the case. It's a personal injustice on a personal level, but there's also an access to justice issue, and a victimization that continues to exist."

The class action suit could possibly mean the end of the profession as it is currently practised in Alberta. "Subluxation-based chiropractic services is valueless and therefore fraudulent in the legal sense," said Tinkler.

The law firm of Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, intends to launch similar lawsuits in other provinces.

In the statement of claim, which has not been proven in court, the plaintiffs charge that the Alberta College and Association of Chiropractors, which regulates chiropractic in Alberta, "willfully and recklessly blinded themselves" to the fact that many chiropractors were offering disproven and ineffective treatments that were useless and dangerous. It also claims that the College "acted in bad faith," putting "the promotional and economic interests of chiropractors ahead of its duty to protect the public from economic exploitation and physical harm."

Dr. Brian Gushaty is the registrar for the Alberta College and Association of Chiropractors. He declined to comment on the suit prior to its review by the organization's legal counsel. "This is the first that I've heard of it, so I don't feel it's responsible to make any comment about it ..."

The statement of claim also says that the Ministry of Health and Wellness in Alberta failed to properly regulate chiropractic, ignored repeated warnings about the dangers posed by its unscientific procedures and, "placed an uncontrolled public health risk into the primary health care marketplace."

Howard May speaks for the Ministry of Health and Wellness. He declined to comment on the suit.

But, most interestingly, the class action suit challenges the foundation of chiropractic - the vertebral subluxation. Many contemporary chiropractors believe that the body can heal itself, so long as an innate energy flows unimpeded from the nervous system out the vertebrae of the spine.

Innate proponents also believe that a "misaligned" vertebra can impinge that energy and cause ill health. According to chiropractors, these vertebral subluxations interrupt energy flow resulting in health problems that include: organ disease, circulation problems, cancer, allergies, infections, bedwetting, even learning disorders. Those beliefs, that have no basis in science, and are not shared by medical professionals, come from chiropractic's founder, Canadian D.D. Palmer, who invented chiropractic at the end of the 19th Century. Couched in more contemporary language, this belief system informs much of chiropractic promotion and practice in Canada today.

In fact, The Alberta College and Association of Chiropractic website makes precisely these kinds of claims: "The chiropractic adjustment is thought to restore the body's powerful ability to heal itself ... Chiropractors can play a major role in preventative care, protecting against future pain and health problems." You can watch a video that outlines the ACAC's position on chiropractic featuring Greg Stiles here.

And, the chiropractor who adjusted Sandy Nette's neck, Gregory John Stiles, says on his website: "Chiropractic is based on two premises: the body is a self-healing organism. The nervous system is the Master system of the body. The main goal of your Chiropractor is to reduce the interference of your body's inborn ability to heal itself."

Sandy had been going to Stiles regularly for more than seven years, receiving adjustments to her back and neck that she believed helped maintained her health. Minutes after a routine chiropractic visit that included a neck adjustment, on September 13, 2007, Sandy felt ill and had to compose herself in the clinic's waiting room. She tried to drive home but only got as far as an off ramp south of Edmonton's Yellowhead Highway. That's when she called her husband, David who took her directly to hospital where she suffered a massive stroke.

Stiles said he could not comment on Sandy's experience, nor on her condition citing patient confidentiality. He declined to comment on the suit.

After life-saving surgery at the University of Alberta Hospital, Sandy, a senior land administrator in the oil and gas industry, was left almost completely paralysed, a quadriplegic totally dependent on machines, hospital staff and her husband for her life support and care.

Now, almost nine months after the incident, Sandy is a resident at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital and remains a victim of "Locked-In Syndrome," alert, fully conscious and able to feel, but unable to speak, eat or move - and requiring frequent respiratory suctioning. Initially, she communicated by blinking her eyes but now has regained partial use of one arm and can labouriously spell out words on a computer-based touchboard.

Today, David works mornings at his furniture refinishing business, and spends the rest of the day and evening with his wife. Sandy, formerly a fit and active classical pianist and singer, is now confined to her bed, except for occasional trips in a wheelchair. "My wife lives in a prison," said Nette.

He recalls that when Sandy regained some use of her hand and learned to spell out letters, the first question she asked, over and over was: "Why did he do this to me?"

Note: has exclusive video footage of David and Sandy Nette talking about their experience on You Tube and on rabbletv in the On-Demand section.

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