Can the NHS be held liable for hospital deaths at weekends-

Posted by Malcolm Johnson on

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The Sunday Times carries a story about thousands of patients, who are dying unnecessarily because of the failure of Britain's hospitals. Death rates are rising by up to 27% at the weekend in certain hospitals.

Cases include:-

  • A 28 year old mother of two who was turned away from hospital when she had a life threatening ectopic pregnancy. She subsequently died
  • A 45 year old man who turned up to hospital with blood poisoning. Staff failed to realise his condition, he suffered a stroke and died. 
  • A 12 year old child who died of blood poisoning after junior doctors failed to carry out basic tests and observations.So does the law allow a compensation claim to be brought for system failure?

In Bull and Wakeham v Devon Area Health Authority [1993] 4 Med LR 117,the court found that there was a medically unacceptable delay of one hour in securing the attendance of a suitable qualified doctor to deal with an emergency arising out of the birth of a second twin.

Likewise in Robertson v Nottingham Health Authority [1997] 8 Med LR 1, the court found significant breakdowns in a hospital’s system of communications within its obstetric department. However a court will be more sympathetic to the defence of lack of resources.

In Hardaker v Newcastle Health Authority [2001] Lloyds Rep Med 512, a diver complained that a hospital should have had its decompression chamber manned at all times. The court disagreed, saying that this was a rare medical event.Certainly the courts expect doctors to have the right standard of competence.Hospitals are expected to make use of inexperienced personnel to man their wards and theatres, but in the case of Wilsher v Essex Area Health authority [1987] QB 730 the court said:-

In a case such as the present the standard is not just that of the averagely competent and well-informed junior houseman (or whatever the position of the doctor), but of such a person who fills a post in a unit offering a highly specialised service.

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Malcolm is an Senior Associate in our London office, with nearly twenty years' experience.

Malcolm Johnson
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