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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.’

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.

Almario – bariatric case fails on appeal: the house of cards analogy with medical cases..

In Varipatis v. Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, the New South Wales Court of Appeal reversed the trial judge’s finding in favor of an obese patient alleging negligence on the part of his general practitioner in failing to refer him for weight loss surgery.

The trial decision, which on any assessment was generous to the plaintiff Mr. Almario, had generated media attention and concern that it in effect required such a referral in any case in which an obese patient with a co-morbidity [in this case diabetes] presented to a general practitioner. Furthermore, that in some way the general practitioner’s obligations went beyond firm counselling the patient as to the need for weight loss and health risks if this did not eventuate.

The case must be treated with caution in relation to contemporary medical practice, given the time of the relevant GP care in issue. On appeal it was significant that the link between obesity and liver disease was not well understood until 2002, which followed the relevant care [and is indicative of the time this case took to proceed to trial].

No doubt the trial judge had considerable sympathy with Mr. Almario’s situation. At the time of trial he suffered from advanced liver cancer with no likelihood of long term survival.

The case on its facts presents a good reminder of the difficult evidentiary path patients [and so plaintiffs] may face in establishing their case and the obstacle the burden of proof they bear as the claimant creates. On reading the decision I was reminded of the analogy given to me by a senior lawyer, years ago, that a complex plaintiff’s case is like constructing a multi-storey house of cards, with a doctor or hospital only having to dislodge a single ‘card,’ or step in the chain for the claim to fail.  Further, to dislodge a card, all the hospital or doctor need do is create doubt.  They often have no need to prove anything: only to create doubt..

In Almario, amongst other steps (or ‘cards’) that Mr Almario had to satisfy to prove his case, even if it was accepted that he should have been referred to a bariatric surgeon for consideration of weight loss surgery, were:

  • that such surgeon would have recommended surgery for him – by no means a certainty;
  • that Mr Almario would have decided to proceed with such surgery, even if recommended – given significant risks of complications associated with such surgery;
  • that the surgery would have been successful technically  – again, there were well recognised risks this would not occur;
  • that even if such surgery was successful, Mr Almario would have achieved persisting weight loss – noting the risk of this, even when all went well, was in some quarters 50%;
  • that such weight loss would have avoided Mr Almario developing cancer.

This, it can be gathered, was a formidable task..  If cumulatively considered, it was easy to see why a conclusion would be reached that it was far less than an even chance that Mr Almario would have got to the end (built his complete house of cards).

An intriguing issue is whether such issues should be considered collectively or sequentially: from a plaintiff’s perspective, there is a clear significant benefit of the latter (ie if you prove step 1 on a balance of probabilities, you move to stage 2 and consider it independently), rather than the former.  My impression is that the trial judge followed this more generous sequential fact finding process.

The appeal succeeded largely because the Court of Appeal did not accept that the trial judge’s reasoning and generous factual conclusions were justifiable, rather than any issue of legal principle. The Appeal Court werenot satisfied, even had a referral for advice by a bariatric surgeon occurred, that Mr. Almario would have proceeded with the surgery and that such surgery would have been successful, such as to avoid the development of his liver condition and subsequent cancer