TORONTO - Nurses, people who contracted SARS and their families cannot sue the Ontario government over the deadly 2003 outbreak that claimed 44 lives, Ontario's top court ruled Thursday.

Several groups of people attempted to sue the province, alleging the government put economic interests ahead of public safety during the outbreak.

But the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled the claims did not have legal grounds to proceed, and dismissed the lawsuits.

The nurses' claim involved 53 registered nurses in the Toronto area and their families, including the family of Tecla Lin, who died of SARS in July 2003.

They alleged the province failed to provide nurses with timely information and that the directives issued to Ontario hospitals were inadequate and exposed nurses to the risk of contracting SARS.

They also alleged Ontario declared the health emergency over prematurely to counter the effect of a World Health Organization travel advisory.

In its ruling, the court said Ontario is obliged to protect the public from the spread of communicable diseases, but can't be held financially responsible to people who catch those diseases.

That applies to nurses as well as the general public, the court said.

"Nurses were, by virtue of their profession, in the eye of the SARS storm, but they had no higher claim to have their health protected by Ontario than any other resident of the province," the decision reads.

The 44 SARS deaths all occurred in the Toronto area.

Ontario Nurses' Association president Linda Haslam-Stroud said the decision is the wrong signal to send as the possibility of a flu pandemic looms.

"The message to front-line registered nurses is that government is not accountable for their safety or their lives," Haslam-Stroud said in a statement.

"The government is not required to pass laws that provide RNs with safe working conditions, safe equipment and they don't have to take any responsibility to keep us safe. It's an outrageous and deplorable situation."

Andrea Williams, who was the representative plaintiff in the proposed class action for individuals who contracted SARS, caught the disease during the second wave.

Ontario declared SARS a provincial emergency on March 26, 2003, and by late April the province began to relax infection controls imposed on hospitals. The premier lifted the declaration of emergency on May 17.

However, on May 23 Ontario announced SARS had not been completely contained, and Williams said she contracted SARS just days earlier when she was in hospital for a surgery.

Williams alleged Ontario's failure to control the first outbreak led to the second and that the province lifted the state of emergency too early.

As in the nurses' lawsuit, the court ruled the province cannot be held liable for Williams or other individuals contracting the disease.

"When assessing how best to deal with the SARS outbreak, Ontario was required to address the interests of the public at large rather than focus on the particular interests of the plaintiff or other individuals in her situation," the decision said.

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