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This is our blog.  It contains most posts Julian makes at his own blog http://www.westaustralianmedicalnegligence.com, along with posts relating to the firm specifically: If Julian can convince them to do so, it will also include blogs by other staff!

The crony (peer) defence takes a hit! (Mules v Ferguson)

I read with interest the Queensland Court of Appeals recent decision in relation to this matter. The Court of Appeal by a 2:1 majority overturned the trial judge’s earlier rejection of this medical negligence claim.

The case involved allegations of negligence against a general practitioner for failing to refer a patient ultimately found to suffer from cryptococcal meningitis. The patient suffered a catastrophic outcome due to such meningitis, including loss of sight and hearing. Damages were assessed [provisionally] at over $6.7 million by the primary trial judge.

The trial judge concluded that the GP had been negligent in not completing a careful neck examination and inquiry as to the patient’s progress, when she attended repeatedly.

Nonetheless, the trial judge dismissed the patient’s claim on the 2 basis that:

  1. Causation: even had the GP done what she ought and completed a careful neck examination and inquiry as to the patient’s headaches, etc., in the particular circumstances, such further steps would not have raised sufficient concerns to result in the patient being referred for a neurological review/assessment in time to receive treatment avoiding her catastrophic outcome.
  2. Peer Defence: Although he concluded the GP was negligent and should have completed a careful neck examination and further questioned the patient, he considered such GP had made out a defence under the Civil Liability Act on the basis that she had acted in a way, which was widely accepted by peer professional opinion.

The case is interesting in that as far as I know it was the only Australian case in which a trial judge has found that a medical practitioner’s care was negligent, but nonetheless excused it on the basis of such “peer defence.” This struck me at the time as an odd conclusion: in a way, the trial judge accepted the GP should have done something, but because a bunch of colleagues wouldn’t have done it either (and therefore, not surprisingly, thought she had acted reasonably), excused her..  I hate this defence!

Pleasingly for the patient, the Court of Appeal overturned the trial judge’s conclusions on each of these 2 points.

The appeal primarily centered on a careful review/analysis of the evidence as to whether, had the GP completed the examination and further inquiry she ought, this would have triggered an early referral. By a 2:1 majority the members of the Court of Appeal concluded [contrary to the trial judge] that it would.

The trial judge had accepted that if such a referral had occurred, the patient would have acted on it expeditiously and treatment would have taken place which would have avoided the catastrophic injuries she suffered due to her meningitis.

The members of the Court of Appeal also overturned the trial judge’s acceptance of the “peer defence”.

Interestingly, for future reference, the decision makes clear that for such a peer defence to be made out, the medical practitioner’s experts must confirm that the doctor’s conduct on the facts as found, was in accordance with peer professional opinion. It is not sufficient for experts to simply make a broad sweeping conclusion or to do so based on the medical practitioner’s claims as to what the patient told them and what they observed (if such claims are then [as here] not fully accepted).

The case highlights that making out such a peer defence will be quite a difficult and complex evidentiary task for defendants and their advisors. Where there are important primary disputes as to what took place during the relevant consultations, etc., the defence team will need to ensure confirmation of support for a peer defence across the cross section of likely findings open to the judge. Such likely findings may not be something necessarily obvious prior to the commencement of trial.

Predictably perhaps, in my view it is appropriate that this defence is given narrow application, once a trial judge is convinced that care was negligent – the situations in which doctors should be excused for failing to show reasonable care, because of peer practices, should be rare indeed..

The uncertainty consequences of delay in diagnosis of cancer

I read with interest recent medical literature, reporting on research at Johns Hopkins, emphasising the role of a 3rd factor in cancer incidence.

Debate has traditionally focussed on the ‘environmental -v- hereditary’ nature of many cancers.  New research, as reported, has confirmed that ‘luck,’ bad or otherwise, appears to be an even more important factor.  Random DNA mutations during cell division have been found to explain 2/3 of cancers in adults.

Such research findings, emphasise the role of early detection in cancer care, given the unavoidability of luck, one way or another.

Apart from in cancer’s initial occurrence, several recent cases we have/are handling have emphasised the ‘luck’ element, not just in whether cancer arises in the first place, but additionally in its response to treatment and recurrence.

Sadly, at any time we handle 10 or more cases involving inappropriate delay in diagnosis of cancers.  The harm caused by such delay is often the growth and maturation/progression of the ‘missed cancer,’ often most importantly impacting on the statistical probability of such cancer responding to treatment – or recurring.

A couple of cases we have looked at in the last year have emphasised that whilst statistical information, based on staging of cancer at diagnosis, is often the best method for assessing the effect of an inappropriate delay in diagnosis and treatment, it needs to be remembered that individuals may or may not conform to such statistical predictors.

In the first case, given the type of cancer and its very early staging, statistically, our client should have had a very good chance of survival + so the delay of 12 months in diagnosis/treatment should not have caused significant harm.  Sadly, to the contrary, within months of engaging us, our client was found to have extensive metastatic spread and her outlook now is grim.  From a claim’s perspective, our independent oncologist confirmed that knowing what we know about the aggression of the cancer cells in this unfortunate patient, it remains unlikely that the 12 month delay made any difference: even with diagnosis 12 months earlier, it is likely her cancer would/had spread.

In a second case, the exact opposite occurred.  The type and staging of cancer at diagnosis was advanced and likely to be aggressive, with a resulting poor outlook for our client.  In contrast, diagnosis 2+ years earlier, at a significantly less advanced stage on statistical grounds should have resulted in a far better outlook.  On the other hand, our client has [thankfully] already survived 3.5+ years since diagnosis, without evidence of recurrence.  Our independent oncologist considered that in such scenario, again, knowing what we do, it is unlikely the delay in diagnosis has altered the client’s outlook.  Given the type of cancer, 3.5+ years without recurrence, put him in an excellent category + it appeared he is in the small statistical group defying the overall poor outlook from his stage of disease.  Great news for our client (though not for his claim: though I know which he prefers!).

All goes to show that these types of case, which are sadly reasonably common, require considerable work-up, not only to evaluate whether harm has followed any inappropriate (negligently caused) delay in diagnosis/treatment on a ‘population basis’ but also on an ‘individual basis.’

Botox + Filler’s : more dangerous than you may think!

We have recently agreed to act on behalf of a client who has suffered significant irreparable facial scarring/disfigurement as a consequence of dermal fillers, she underwent earlier this year @ a slick, web-advertising, brochure wielding, ‘wellness’ clinic in Perth’s metro area (can’t you just picture the ‘world muzac’/running water + Buddha heads!).  We have now handled several such cases, including an even more serious case in which the patient was left with enduring face drop due to nerve damage during injection of filler to her upper lip area.

Despite assurances to the contrary, it seems the operator of the clinic  performing the filler injection was not a registered nurse (though she may have been a nurse of some description/form at some earlier time).  We are yet to find details of what her ‘medically trained’ qualifications entail….

Further, it appears the dermal filler she injected to our client’s face, which lead to her repeated infections/abscesses, may well not have been a recognised, TGA approved product.  A suggestion has arisen that instead, the clinic operator was buying filler + botox supplies online from destination unknown (no doubt at ‘competitive rates’).

Interestingly, because the operator was not at the relevant time a registered nurse, I understand it is difficult for AHPRA (the old Nurses Board) to act.  Their jurisdiction is broadly limited to nurses.

The case is [yet another] cautionary tale about cosmetic treatment providers.  Why this isn’t something governments regulate tightly is unclear.  Why someone injecting foreign material into someone’s face – or irradiating their body (in IPL) isn’t seen as something needing close regulation is hard to fathom…

Apart from anything, I have difficulty understanding how the operators of such businesses, in contrast to properly qualified health professionals, can avoid a mandatory requirement of appropriate professional indemnity insurance…..

But perhaps, its just me..

Fairness (?) + Non-Pecuniary Loss Awards in medical cases

As I have observed from time to time, a previously common, now almost universal sentiment of disappointment is expressed by clients when advised as to the likely scale of compensation they would be awarded by the courts for their pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment of life due to negligently caused injury.

I have observed elsewhere the relative lack of growth in the sums awarded for such component to claims, as a consequence of legislative limits or deductibles via our Civil Liability Act (“CLA”) and relatively conservatism by our Court’s in their assessments.

Once again, as I have stated (ranted?) elsewhere, I am still waiting to see any evidence of how such CLA provisions have a corresponding benefit to the wider community, justifying their impact on claimants.

Bracket creep in the CLA deductible now means that claims of blatant, negligently caused harm causing serious enduring suffering face the very real possibility of entitling the victim to no compensation at all, or what they may, with good reason, consider paltry.  For example, a commonly assessed sum for enduring mild to moderate psychiatric suffering experienced by the parents of a baby dying during child-birth, due to negligent obstetric or midwifrey care, has been a figure in the order of $30 – $35,000.00.  With the application of the CLA deductible, this is reduced to $11 – 16,000.00.  Whilst it is critical to appreciate this is compensation for the parents’ suffering and not a value on the lost life, it can be immediately appreciated why so many clients see such an assessment for their loss, as insulting + in no way reparation for their suffering.

I note with interest the practice prevalent in the United Kingdom whereby its Court of Appeal periodically reassesses the amount that will be awarded for  non‑pecuniary loss aspect to claims.  For example I came across in passing, a press release indicating a 10%  increase in the amounts to be awarded for this head of damage with effect in relation to judgments after 1 April 2013.

In my view there is much to commend such a practice to reflect overall changing attitudes and expectations in the community as well as changes in the purchasing power of any given ‘symbolic’ compensation awarded to the claimant.

We’re hiring!

As Michal is leaving us to return to Canada next month, we have a vacancy for a junior lawyer (0-3 years post-admission) to join our team…

Don't be shy, if you're keen to work in this area, in Perth's best boutique firm, email me your details…. Cheers Julian

Paul v Cooke – timing difference not enough to prove causation

The High Court recently dismissed the special leave application brought in this case by Ms Paul, seeking to overturn the New South Wales Court of Appeal’s decision rejecting her claim.

As may be known, the case concerned a delay in diagnosis of an intracranial aneurysm suffered by Ms Paul. She underwent a head CT Scan in 2003 and Dr Cooke, the radiologist, negligently failed to identify and therefore diagnose the aneurysm.  In 2006, following a further scan, the aneurysm was diagnosed. Sadly during surgery to remove the aneurysm it ruptured causing Ms Paul a stroke and serious injury.

For the purposes of the special leave application it was accepted that the risk of rupture/stroke associated with the operation Ms Paul underwent in 2006 was no different to the risk had she undergone surgery in 2003, as would have occurred had Dr Cooke not negligently failed to diagnose the aneurysm.

The New South Wales Court of Appeal had concluded that Dr Cooke’s negligence was not the cause of Ms Paul’s surgical complication. His negligence changed the timing of surgery but did not alter the risk associated with it. It did not matter that it could be fairly said that had Ms Paul undergone surgery in 2003, it was very unlikely that she would have suffered the rupture and stroke she did in 2006.  Dr Cooke had breached his duty of care, but was not responsible for the stroke.

The High Court rejected the application for permission to appeal from such decision (the special leave application), because its members, in essence, agreed with the Court of Appeal. There was not sufficient doubt to warrant granting permission to appeal.

There is now a clear distinction between diagnosis and treatment cases on one hand and failure to warn cases on the other in this important context.  In the latter, it is well recognised (and recently reaffirmed by the High Court in Wallace v Kam, [2013] HCA, 19) that a patient can succeed in a claim if able to show that had they been properly warned of the risks associated with treatment they would have delayed proceeding, even if ultimately such surgery or treatment was likely to occur and would involve the same risks as eventuated at the time of their operation. More must be shown in diagnosis/treatment cases. A negligently caused delay in surgery carrying the same risk is not sufficient for liability.

Paul v Cooke failed, apart from on general causation principle, by reason of the terms of section 5I of the NSW Civil Liability Act which provides that:

“a person is not liable in negligence for harm suffered by another person as a result of the materialization of an inherent risk.”

The New South Wales Court of Appeal rejected argument on Ms Paul’s behalf that this section was limited to materialisation of a risk associated with treatment provided by the negligent defendant. This section was interpreted as broad enough to exclude liability when the inherent risk that materialised, as occurred in the surgery performed by the team caring for Ms Paul in 2006, well after the negligent failure to diagnose by Dr Cooke.  Interestingly the WA equivalent provision, section 5P is differently worded from the New South Wales legislation and does seem to be limited to inherent risk associated with the defendant’s treatment.

The Value of an Apology.. its more than you may think!

In several cases concluded in the last month or 2 of 2013, I have again been reminded of the remarkable ‘value’ of an expression of regret by health professionals in two recent cases.

In the first, following a mediation in the court, very much to his credit, the GP defendant at my request, but without obligation, expressed regret to a client whose wife died following late diagnosis of metastatic colon cancer.  I am convinced that my client obtained infinitely greater comfort and closure in relation to the issue from this expression of regret than the relatively modest monetary compensation to be paid for his psychological suffering due to his wife’s foreshortened palliative care period.

Similarly, in a Coronial Inquest  in which I appeared for family of an elderly but active fellow who died as a consequence of inguinal hernia surgery, the fact the GP anaesthetist involved unambiguously demonstrated sadness at what had occurred and illustrated the emotional impact his patient’s death had had upon him,  had a profound effect on the deceased family members concerned.

In neither of these two cases was the expression of regret coupled with, or implicitly involving any admission of culpability (morally or legally).  This is in my experience almost always of secondary importance to the patient and family.  The important point both cases demonstrate is the ‘humanness” of the health professional and that the adverse outcome has, as ought be expected, impacted upon them, perhaps causing reflection and even perhaps, a change in future practice.

A lesson I think that health professionals and their insurers would do well to heed.

Midwife versus Obstetrician: which is safer?

I note with interest media attention to the comprehensive study recently completed relevant to the safety of midwifery care (in part as an alternative to obstetric medical management) across all pregnancies.

This study confirmed that over an impressively scaled and vigorously qualified study group, the relative safety of midwife managed pregnancies, including labour and delivery was confirmed. This included high risk pregnancies, in which a view has previously been held that obstetric management would be significantly safer. Women were generally no safer with an obstetrician involved in their care.

Interestingly the study also found a significantly reduced proportion of deliveries in which instrumental assistance via forceps etc occurred, without harm to the outcome. Whilst this was not surprising, the fact that the safety of outcomes did not seem harmed by this reduction is.

Further, though in my view, less importantly, it was confirmed that the overall costs associated with pregnancy and labour were on average more than $500.00 less when a midwifery care model was used than otherwise. This is a significant cost difference when the number of woman giving birth each year in Australia is considered.

IVF triplets and Melchior claim – emotion aside

I note with interest the recent article in the Australian, confirming a wrongful birth claim for the parents of triplets in Queensland, alleging a breach of contract by their IVF provider, by which they had agreed that no more than 2 embryos would be implanted, yet instead 3 embryos were used.

If the emotional rhetoric is put to one side, there is really nothing controversial about this claim. We would handle such 'wrongful birth' cases, most commonly arising from (negligently caused) failed sterilisation or failure to identify fetal developmental abnormalities during pregnancy, on at least an annual basis.

A key point ignored by the article and debate is that had there been no negligence in the couple's care, yet they still had triplets, no claim could be brought. The High Court rejected arguments about sanctity of life in such cases, a decade or more ago.

Pursuit of claim does not mean the parents are monsters or do not love their 3rd child: it just means they have received negligent care and as a consequence, will incur significant extra costs, related to the 3rd child's raising, which the negligent service should contribute towards. I for one believe this is perfectly appropriate and fair.

 

Extensions of Time: Court of Appeal find a way to make sense of section 41 Limitation Act (Barr v Farrell)

On 10 September 2014 the Court of Appeal by a majority of 2 to 1 upheld appeal against an early decision by Judge Bowden in the District Court rejecting the applicant’s request for an extension of time in which to bring claim under Section 41 of the Limitation Act 2005.

As I have commented previously, such section on its face [bizarrely] only permits an extension of claim for a child, outside the six-year time limit now set, if the Court is satisfied that the child’s guardian acted unreasonably in failing to bring claim within this 6 year time period.

In other words, if there is a good reason why claim was not brought earlier, no extension can be given – go figure!

In Barr’s case, the guardian’s failure to bring claim within the 6 years was because their [negligent] solicitor had advised them it was not necessary to do so and there was plenty of time.  They had expert medical evidence that the child’s care had been negligent, but were told there was no need to rush, as there remained plenty of time for the action to be brought.  This was due to a failure to appreciate that since Nov 2005, birth injury cases (even those relating to births prior to such time) had a ‘new’ 6 year time limit, rather than the old period for claim, which had been generally 6 years from when the child reached 18.

Judge Bowden’s decision seemed to follow the terms of such provision, finding that because the guardian had relied upon legal advice, they had not acted unreasonably and so no extension could be granted [they being presumably left to pursue claim against their negligent lawyer for wrongly advising them concerning the timeframe for claim].

Though unquestionably the right end result, the Court of Appeal’s decision required some ‘reasoning gymnastics.’

Justice Pullin concluded that the inquiry as to whether a guardian had acted reasonably or not was an objective question.  He concluded that the legal advice provided by the lawyer was not part of such objective circumstances that needed to be considered.  Rather the objective circumstances were the fact that severe injury had occurred and medical opinion had been obtained suggesting that the obstetric care was negligent and had caused such injury.  In these circumstances, Justice Pullin concluded that a reasonable guardian would have commenced proceedings and so the court’s discretion arose.

As Justice Murphy put it at [66] the circumstances upon which the decision whether a failure to initiate proceedings was unreasonable include “The nature and strength of the claim, the damages which were expected to be recoverable and any cost considerations which might reasonably bear upon a decision to sue in the particular circumstances of the case.  Medical reports which had been obtained by the plaintiff’s actual guardian would be admissible as relevant to, but not necessarily determinative of, the question of whether, objectively, it was unreasonable for a guardian of the plaintiff not to commence proceedings within time.”  He further stated at [67] “If, in the circumstances, it was unreasonable for a guardian responsible for the plaintiff’s welfare etc. and practicably capable of suing not to have sued within time, the minor is taken to have lost a valuable priority right in a situation where he or she was incapable of preserving the right for himself or herself.  In that event the discretion to extend time may be exercised.”

Interestingly such reasoning does not directly deal with the availability of an extension in the more common scenario where no expert opinion has yet been obtained within the six years (for instance because the parents have been too busy caring for their disabled child to give litigation priority prior to this timeframe expiring, or it is only then they are informed of a poor long term outlook for their child and then consider litigation).  I anticipate allegations in such scenario that the parent/guardian has acted unreasonably in not more promptly investigating a medical negligence claim before the six-year period expires.  Bizarrely, it will be in the guardian’s best interest to accept that they have acted unreasonably in not investigating earlier.

It is important to appreciate the unusual circumstances in Barr.  Expert opinion had already been obtained critical of the care provided and supportive of the fact that this had caused injury.  Nonetheless, in my view the decision encourages a view that the scope of the extension provision is broader than perhaps previously envisaged and there is an arguable prospect for extensions to be granted, where no expert opinion has been sought by the guardian within time or, though this is more controversial, where initial advice may not have supported criticism.