piBlawg

the personal injury and clinical negligence blog

A collaboration between Rebmark Legal Solutions and 1 Chancery Lane

Daniel v St George's Healthcare NHS Trust & London Ambulance Service: a human rights cautionary tale?

  Daniel v St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust  and London Ambulance Service [2016] EWHC 23 (QB) Introduction Edward Bishop QC has successfully defended an NHS trust and the London Ambulance Service against claims under the Human Rights Act 1998 brought by the foster family of a man who died of a heart attack in Wandsworth Prison.  The judgment deals with the legal test for liability, causation and victim status.     The central allegation was that there was culpable delay in the attendance of paramedics caused by nursing error and an insufficiently flexible ambulance triage system.  The judge rejected both allegations on the facts and clarified the law on causation in cases of death in custody from natural causes.  She also dealt with “victim status” under the HRA, ruling that the deceased’s foster mother was entitled to bring a claim but his “foster brother” was not. Background James Best (“JB”) was a prisoner on remand at Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Wandsworth when he died from natural causes on 8 September 2011. He suffered a myocardial infarction (a heart attack), as a result of a ruptured plaque in the coronary artery, which caused cardiac arrest and death. He was only 37. He had no previous history of heart disease and it is likely that the plaque was ruptured by over-exertion in the prison gym. The First Defendant (“St George’s”) is a National Health Service (“NHS”) Trust responsible for the provision of primary health care within HMP Wandsworth. Doctors and nurses employed by the First Defendant in the Department of Primary Care at HMP Wandsworth tried unsuccessfully to save JB’s life on the day of his death. The Second Defendant (“the LAS”) is a NHS Trust responsible for the provision of ambulances within the London area. HMP Wandsworth is within its catchment area. On 8 September 2011, an emergency call for an ambulance for JB was made, but he was dead by the time the ambulance arrived. The central allegations were that the nurse who attended on JB in his cell failed to request an ambulance quickly enough, and further that there was unnecessary and unreasonable delay in the dispatch of an ambulance by the LAS. The Claimants had a close relationship with JB which began when the First Claimant fostered JB for 3 years when he was a teenager, between 1988 and 1991. The Second Claimant is the First Claimant’s biological son, and described JB as his foster brother. The Claimants have brought their claim for declarations and damages under the Human Rights Act 1998 (“HRA 1998”), alleging that the First and Second Defendants, as public authorities, acted in breach of Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”). Violation of Articles 2 and 3 Mrs Justice Lang set out the appropriate legal test to be applied when considering whether or not there had been a breach. She reiterated the guidance: “I remind myself that the test to be applied is whether the Defendants did “all that could reasonably be expected of them to avoid a real and immediate risk to life of which they have or ought to have knowledge” (Osman at [116]). In Rabone, Lord Dyson considered that an “immediate” risk was one which “present and continuing” (at [39]). He added, at [43]:   “The standard required for the performance of the operational duty is one of reasonableness. This brings in “consideration of the circumstances of the case, the ease or difficulty of taking precautions and the resources available”; per Lord Carswell In re Officer L [2007] 1 WLR 2135 , para 21.   The ECtHR and the domestic courts have emphasised that the operational duty must not be interpreted in a way “which imposes an impossible or disproportionate burden on the authorities” (Osman at [116])”   On causation, and having considered the evidence, the test was: “the legal test of causation is whether there was a failure to take reasonably available measures which could have had a “real prospect of altering the outcome”. Put another way, the Claimants have to establish that JB “lost a substantial chance of avoiding the outcome”.”   The court heard extensive evidence, not just from the actual persons involved in the immediate aftermath, but also from medical experts who gave evidence on the chances of survival following such a heart attack. Careful consideration was given to transcripts of the 999 call-outs, and the exact timing of those calls. The criteria and policy of the ambulance service was scrutinised.   Mrs Justice Lang was emphatic in her dismissal of the claims of breach. She did not consider that the “Claimants have succeeded in establishing, on the balance of probabilities, that, even if [the nurse at the prison] had called an ambulance earlier, or LAS had dispatched an ambulance sooner, that there would have been a “real prospect of altering the outcome” or that JB “lost a substantial chance of avoiding the outcome”.   As for the claims brought under Article 3, the Judge said: “The claim under Article 3 was unarguable, in my view. [the prison nurse] acted promptly, reasonably and professionally and did all she could to save JB’s life. There was no unreasonable delay in calling an ambulance. The LAS handled the emergency call in accordance with their procedures which were required to ensure that a limited resource of emergency vehicles and personnel were allocated fairly within the community according to priority need. ” It certainly did not amount to “inhuman and degrading treatment”.   Victim status   Both Claimants brought claims alleging that they were “indirect victims”. Mrs Justice Lang considered the law on victim status, and set out the relevant test:   “In my judgment, the likely approach of the ECtHR in determining the status of the Claimants in this case would be to consider all the facts and circumstances to assess: ·       1. the nature of the legal/family relationship between the Claimants and JB; ·       2. the nature of the personal ties between the Claimants and JB; ·       3. the extent to which the alleged violations of the Convention (1) affected them personally and (2) caused them to suffer; ·       4. involvement in the proceedings arising out of JB’s death.”   On applying that criteria, she was satisfied that the first Claimant was a indirect victim as she had been JB’s foster mother for three years, leading to a longstanding parent-child relationship. JB had no other family of his own, and shortly before his death referred to himself as the first Claimant’s “third son”. Not only this, but the first Claimant had clearly suffered from acute distress following JB’s demise, and had been extremely active in the aftermath of his death.   However, the second Claimant was found not be an indirect victim. The status of “foster brother” is not recognised in UK domestic law or in ECtHR case law. There can be no question that the second Claimant suffered hugely from the loss of a close friend; but this alone is not a sufficient basis on which to found a claim.   The claims were dismissed.

Quantity not quality

The decision of Foskett J in Reaney v University Hospital of North Staffordshire NHS Trust  [2014] EWHC 3016 (QB) (rightly) caused some excitement in the legal blogosphere when it was handed down in October 2014. It appeared that he had extended the familiar eggshell skull rule by holding that a Defendant who had injured a woman with pre-existing care needs was liable to compensate for her full care needs not just the additional needs. That decision has now been overturned by the Court of Appeal [2015] EWCA Civ 1119  who draw a useful distinction between qualitatively and quantitatively different care needs. The Facts Mrs Reaney, was admitted to hospital in December 2008 with transverse myelitis. As a result she was permanently paralysed below the mid-thoracic level and classified as a T7 paraplegic. It was common ground that this was not caused by any negligence. As a result of a prolonged hospital stay she suffered pressure sores. It was admitted that this was caused by the Defendant’s negligence. As a result of the transverse myelitis she was always destined to be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. It was found that but for the development of the pressure sores, the Claimant would have required some professional care, increasing as she got older. But as a result of the pressure sores and their resulting complications, she would require 24/7 care from 2 carers for the rest of her life. The Decision of Foskett J Foskett J with reference to Paris v Stepney Borough Council [1951] A.C. 367 held at ¶69 that while a Defendant is only liable to compensate for damage which he has caused or to which he has materially contributed, where he has made the Claimant’s position substantially worse he must make full compensation for that worsened condition. He therefore concluded that she was entitled to full compensation for all her care, physiotherapy and accommodation costs, including the care she would have required but for the negligence. The Decision of the Court of Appeal This conclusion was firmly rejected by the Master of the Rolls who held at ¶18 that the tortfeasor must compensate for the condition in which the Claimant finds herself only to the extent that it has been worsened by the negligence. The rule that a Defendant must take his victim as he finds him is, as the Defendant had argued before Foskett J (¶53), sometimes to a Defendant’s disadvantage and sometimes to their advantage. A Defendant who injures someone with a pre-existing vulnerability, such as the famous eggshell skull, is liable for the full loss flowing from his negligence. However, in this case, it was right that the loss should reflect that the Defendant had injured a T7 paraplegic who already had significant care needs. In fact before the Court of Appeal it was, perhaps surprisingly, common ground between the parties that if the Defendant’s negligence gave rise to substantially the same kind of care and other needs as her pre-existing needs, then the damage caused by the negligence was only the additional needs. However, if the care needs flowing from the negligence were qualitatively different from the pre-existing needs, then those needs were in their entirety caused by the negligence. This view was endorsed by Dyson MR at ¶19. The Claimant’s unsuccessful case on appeal was, therefore, that Foskett J had found the care needs arising from the tortious act to be qualitatively different and so there was no need to disturb his overall conclusion. The Master of the Rolls dealt with the question raised as to the position where there was no means of recovery of the underlying loss. He was firm that the ability to recover for the underlying loss was irrelevant and that a person can only ever be liable for the loss they have caused. Comment At first blush the Court of Appeal’s decision appears to have brought welcome clarity. Foskett J’s judgment, while perhaps giving an attractive result, was not easy to reconcile with the earlier authorities. However, as shown by the point taken by the Claimant before the Court of Appeal, it leaves open significant scope for argument as to when a care need is qualitatively different from pre-existing needs. Those advising both Claimants and Defendants will in future cases of this sort want to scrutinise carefully the differences between the care packages and be ready with arguments as to why those differences should be found to be qualitative or quantitative as appropriate. Finally, as unattractive as this result might seem, there is still nothing to stop a court applying the principle in Paris v Stepney Borough Council and making a higher award for PSLA to reflect the fact that the consequences of injury may be substantially worse for an already injured person.

A defendant's nightmare?

  A Defendant’s Nightmare?   Sarah Davison would normally get to her desk by 6 a.m., work for twelve hours and often head out thereafter to meet and entertain clients. Sleep felt like it was secondary to achievement. She worked in a macho environment and her boss was a man who, in the words of Andrews J, “does not suffer fools gladly, or indeed at all”. But Mrs Davison was well-paid: at the time she left on maternity leave to have her first child she was earning over £200,000 a year. When, after giving birth to that child, she suffered a career-ending injury as a result of clinical negligence, the resulting claim was always going to be of the size that makes defendants and their insurers wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night.   Andrews J’s judgment on damages (Sarah Davison v Craig Leitch [2013] EWHC 3092 (QB)) makes interesting reading. A court called upon to assess loss of earnings in such a situation is engaged in a difficult exercise, perhaps best characterised, to borrow one of my favourite judicial dicta of Lindsay J, as “a glance at a crystal ball of, so to speak, only a low wattage” (see Douglas v Hello! Ltd (No.5) [2003] EWHC 786 (Ch)). There are often a number of variables and changing any one of them can have a significant effect on the ultimate award.   One approach is to consider a number of possible scenarios, determine the probability of each of them occurring, and then multiply that figure by what would have been earned in each scenario; that can sometimes be the only way to do justice, particularly where a person had a chance of a “big break” which, had it occurred, would have lead to very significant rewards. The kick-boxing claimant in Langford v Hebran [2001] PIQR Q13 is a good example of this approach being applied; it works best where there are a limited number of clearly defined possible scenarios; where they are more numerous, or the lines between them more blurred, the calculation can become unwieldy.   The more traditional approach, and the one adopted by the court in Davison, is simply to make a best guess as to how the claimant’s career would have progressed absent the tort. This will inevitably involve scrutiny of the claimant’s pre-accident career and abilities. Andrews J was clearly impressed by the evidence on this point of Mrs Davison’s ex-boss, a man so busy he had to give evidence “via video link ... en route to catching a plane”. There may also be a need, particularly in a volatile or cyclical industry such as financial services, to assess what the future demand would have been for a person’s services.   Andrews J broadly accepted the Claimant’s evidence on these two points; where she differed was as to the likelihood of the Claimant continuing in her pre-accident role as an equities trader once her three children were born, holding “it highly unlikely that when Mrs Davison returned to work after her maternity leave ... she would have had the appetite to return to the stresses of the trading floor and face the prospect of never seeing her three small children during the week ... However much she would like to believe otherwise, in my judgment it is far more likely that she would have moved to a less stressful position within the bank, involving shorter working hours.”   The judgment is also interesting for its award of £6,500 for loss of congenial employment. Given the description of Mrs Davison’s working life at the start of this post, one may well question whether it can really be described as “congenial”. Andrews J justified the award on the basis that Mrs Davison’s “future is uncertain and any work she does undertake in future is likely to be fairly solitary and considerably well paid”. This is curious reasoning. The fact that the Claimant was likely to be paid less was, of course, compensated by an award for future loss of earnings. It might be said that her earnings are relevant to what was in effect an award for loss of status, but here again surely one has to look at all the circumstances of her pre-accident employment. Andrews J found as a fact that the most likely future for the Claimant would be running her own small business, possibly as an interior designer. Of course, that would lack the stimulus and status of a job in the City, but it would also lack its stresses and uncertainties. Can it really be said, taking everything into account, that the Claimant’s overall quality of life would undoubtedly be the poorer? Less well-paid, certainly; but less congenial? - it is perhaps to be doubted. There is a danger that awards under this head will become routine in all cases where a claimant is unable to pursue their chosen career. Perhaps the Law Commission’s suggestion that this should not be a separate head of damage at all, but rather should be considered as part of the award for PSLA, deserves reconsideration.        

Never say never again... "Never events" and NHS Performance

Most people don't know that the NHS has a list of "never events", being a list of preventable events that should never happen.  The October 2012 Never Events Policy Framework defines never events as "serious, largely preventable patient safety incidents that should not occur if the available preventative measures have been implemented by healthcare providers".  The Framework contains a list of 25 never events.  These range from wrong site surgery, retained foreign objects post surgery and misidentification of patients to entrapment in bed rails, misplaced naso or oro-gastric tubes and maternal death due to post partum haemorrhage following elective caesarian section.   There has been coverage in the news this week following the disclosure that there have been 750 such incidents reported in the NHS in the last four years.  The BBC website has produced an interactive table letting you explore the reported incidents by Trust: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-22466496 What is more interesting in many ways is the breakdown of the number of incidents by "event".  The October 2012 Framework makes very interesting reading, containing a table of the 2011/12 results.  Of the 326 incidents for that year (which seems remarkably high considering the overall statistic for four years), the overwhelmingly common category was retained foreign objects post operation, with 161 reported incidents.  Wrong site surgery followed with 70 cases, then 41 cases of wrong implant / prosthesis.   https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/127087/never-events-policy-framework-update-to-policy.pdf.pdf