ABC v. St. George’s Healthcare NHS Trust and Others
In 2007 the claimant’s father (F) shot and killed ABC’s mother. He was convicted of manslaughter and detained at a secure clinic, In 2009 he was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease This is a genetic condition with a 50% chance of recurrence in the next generation. Health professionals sought F’s permission to disclose the diagnosis to ABC, who was pregnant at the time. He refused. In 2013 ABC herself was diagnosed with the condition, but it was too early to tell whether her daughter had the disease. ABC maintained that she should have been informed of her father’s condition whilst pregnant and that if she had been told about it she would have undergone testing. If that had proved positive she would have had a termination. She also claimed to have suffered psychiatric trauma. The defendant applied to strike out the claim on the basis that it was not fair, just or reasonable to allow it to proceed. The judge agreed and held that the claim was bound to fail. Patient confidentiality was a qualified duty, not an absolute one, but there was no obligation, in this case, to disclose to family members information about F’s condition. It would be a radical departure from existing law to impose a liability in such circumstances.
Mrs R underwent a hysterectomy but as a consequence of negligence in the course of surgery a suture was misplaced in her colon. She developed septicaemia and peritonitis and remained in intensive care for nine weeks. She subsequently recovered. Her husband claimed damages for psychiatric trauma as a secondary victim, having seen his wife connected to equipment such as a ventilator, observing her in an unconscious state and noting that her arms, face and legs were very swollen. The claim succeeded at first instance with modest damages being awarded. The Defendant appealed. successfully. The Court of Appeal held that the claimant had not suffered a single shocking event as the law required but rather from a gradual realisation that his wife’s life was in danger as a consequence of the initial surgical mistake. The appearance of his wife was such as might be expected in a hospital setting and was not exceptional. Although alarming and distressing, it was not in the overall context of hospital treatment, wholly unusual. The NHSLA observes, "This is the control mechanism adopted by the law to prevent large numbers of hospital visitors from recovering damages, which would be unsustainable for both the NHS and private hospitals." Clearly in this case the conditions for recovery were not met. It does not follow that they could not be met in other cases in a clinical negligence setting.
There has been a series of secondary victim judgments in which defendants have succeeded. The limits of recoverability (or non-recoverability) for clinical negligence claims are yet to be finally determined.
Following an assault to his head, Mr D attended the A&E department of Mayday Hospital, accompanied by a friend. He was booked in at 20.26 hours and left 19 minutes later without having seen a clinician. Back at home about an hour later his condition deteriorated and he was returned to hospital by ambulance. He suffered a left hemiplegia and is permanently disabled. It was agreed that had he remained in A&E he would have been treated sufficiently soon such that his disability would have been avoided. He claimed that he left because the receptionist was “off-hand” and informed him that he would have to wait four or five hours. The relevant NICE guideline was that patients with head injuries should be reviewed by a trained person within 15 minutes. That guideline was broken, given that the claimant had been in hospital for 19 minutes before departing. The experts agreed however that it would have been acceptable to have been seen within 30 minutes. The judge found that Mr D was not told that he would be seen by a triage nurse within 30 minutes and that he would have remained had he been told that. On the basis of the expert evidence, the Judge found that breaching the NICE guideline was not negligent. Further, he held that receptionists were not under a duty to guard patients against harm caused by failure to wait and be seen. Mr D had to take responsibility for the consequences of his decision to leave.
The NHSLA comments that "This is the first case, to our knowledge, where it was alleged that receptionists owed such a wide duty to patients. The claimant’s representatives are planning to take this issue to the Court of Appeal, so the matter is not concluded yet. This case is important because it also helps to define who is responsible when a patient discharges themselves before being triaged and clarifies the limits of an A&E receptionist’s legal duty to a patient."
In fact the appeal is now due to be heard in February 2017. The case demonstrates that breaching national guidelines is not necessarily negligent. Also, that the scope of the duty of care has to be carefully considered in cases that fall outside the classic Dr (or nurse)/patient relationship.
Mrs R was paralysed below the mid-thoracic level. This was not a result of negligence. She required a few hours care each week, which were predicted to rise to over 30 hours per week by the age of 75. Whilst being cared for in hospital she developed a number of deep (grade 4) pressure sores which severely increased her disability and her need for care. Liability for the pressure sores was admitted. In the High Court Mr Justice Foskett held that the NHS trust should be responsible for all of the claimant’s care needs. The NHSLA appealed and the Court of Appeal held that the trust was only liable to the extent that it had worsened Mrs R’s condition.. A distinction was made between a quantative and qualitative change in care needs. The NHSLA consider this to be "a significant ruling because it demonstrates that where a claimant has pre-existing care needs, it is not equitable for a defendant whose negligence has increased those needs to be responsible for the original care requirements."
A subsequent hearing before Mr Justice Foskett has shown that the complications involved in this case are far from resolved.
The NHSLA comments that this case involved issues of "material contribution .. a topic upon which the law in England is far from straightforward". The NHSLA's summary is, "In essence, if a defendant has materially contributed to a claimant’s injury, and that injury is regarded by experts as being indivisible in terms of causation: in other words it cannot be determined which part of the injury was caused by negligence and which was not, the defendant can be held liable for the whole of the claim." The Privy Council upheld the lower court's decision that a delay in treating the Claimant's sepsis had materially contributed to the serious complications of sepsis he later suffered. I have posted on this decision here. The NHSLA says that "rather than reviewing the whole basis of the law as it relates to material contribution the Privy Council decided this case on its own facts ... we shall now await an opportunity to argue the point in another suitable case."
Look out for a challenge to a material contribution judgment in 2016/17!