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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 continuing debate : “natural” v caesarian modes of delivery

I read with interest the recent article in The Guardian provided an update as to the ever escalating rate of cesarean section births in Australia. The article makes all of the well-known [predictable?] arguments in favor of natural delivery.
It is true, the divergence between cesarean section rates in Australia and the World Health Organization’s recommended rate is remarkable.
Unfortunately, what the article does not do (and much of the debate ignores), is a ‘risk-benefit’ comparison of the two options of cesarean versus a natural delivery (in other than high-risk pregnancies). The truth is that there are risks (and benefits) involved with either option. While public perception in this century tends to ignore this; the simple fact is that childbirth is not [yet] a risk-free process, whichever mode of delivery is preferred.
The most interesting issue, not tackled by the article, is why the divergence of rates?
This must result from the relative weighting applied to the pros and cons of the two alternatives, by contemporary Australian society [and mothers]. Obviously, such weighting diverges from the weighting the WHO considers ‘appropriate.’  The really interesting question is what are the factors leading women to increasingly frequently choose caesarian as their mode of preference?
The law in Australia has for a long time (and in the UK more recently) recognized that healthcare choices, including mode of delivery, are for the patient to make, on a properly informed basis. They are not to be dictated by the health professional, the WHO, or population-based policy, at a government level. This is complicated by the fact that the mother is actually making a choice for 2 rather than 1 person. An intriguing (near unique) legal issue is the question of the mother’s obligations when making such choice to weigh the competing pros and cons from her and her child’s perspective. It is clear that in some respects, the unborn child’s interests may point towards one option while the mother’s preference may lie elsewhere.
The “appropriate” rate for cesarean sections in Australia is to be determined by the rate at which properly informed mothers make their choice, one way or the other.
If there is concern at such rate, the ‘answer,’ if there is one, is to better educate parents, to ‘assist’ them to make sensible decisions as to the weight to be attached to the respective pros and cons of one mode of delivery and the other. To do so, once again, requires that this information be clear. To me at least, this is not yet the case in this debate.

Appeal Court opens door to older claims being allowed (Dixon)

Western Australia’s Court of Appeal in its decision AME Hospitals PTY, Limited v. Dixon [2015] WASCA 63, delivered on 27 March 2015, confirmed, particularly relevantly in the medical negligence claims area, significant scope for persons to bring claim outside the basic 3-year time limit for claims, arising since November 2005 and the introduction of the Limitation Act 2005.

To be permitted to bring claim  beyond the 3-year time limit, Section 39(3) the Limitation Act 2005 provided that the person wishing to bring claim must establish that when the 3-year time limit expired they were not aware of one or more of the following (the emphasis is mine):

  1. The physical cause of the death or their injury;
  2. That such death or injury was attributable to the conduct of the person against whom claim is sought to be brought; or
  3. The identity of the person against whom the claim should be brought, despite reasonable inquiry.

In the Dixon decision all three members of the Court confirmed that for ‘awareness‘ of the above facts to arise, there, in effect, had to be a solid foundation/justification for belief. It was not sufficient for a suspicion or even, it would seem, an ungrounded or generalised conviction or belief to be held (eg that the hospital had ‘done the wrong thing’ in some way).

President McLure (with whom Newnes J.A. agreed) confirmed that where the “awareness” relates to a matter for expert knowledge or experience this will arise only when an expert opinion, reasonably capable of being accepted by a Court and capable of establishing the relevant facts exists, and is known by the person [41].

In practice therefore, in a medical negligence claim, to have awareness that an injury was “attributable to the conduct of a person” (the 2nd test above) will, in my view at least, almost inevitably require that an expert medical witness has expressed such a view and this has been made known to the claimant.  This is also likely to often be the case for ‘awareness’ as to the physical cause (an odd phrase) of an injury.

Buss JA in a separate judgment suggested that the necessary “awareness” must mean knowledge or belief “with sufficient confidence reasonably to justify, in all the circumstances, the commencement of proceedings against the proposed defendant on the relevant cause of action by the issue of a writ or otherwise.”

In a professional negligence context, such as a medical negligence claim against a doctor or hospital, it is hard to envision this point being reached before the claimant has been advised to do so by their legal advisors/representatives.  In our firm’s case at least, this will almost always require that a respectable independent medical expert has confirmed shortcomings in the relevant care and that this was a cause of harm to the patient.

In practice, this means that there will often be good prospects in medical negligence claims (other than the most straightforward), for seeking an extension of time to bring claim outside the 3-year time limit, where a client (the patient) delays seeking legal advice or investigation of the claim until outside this 3-year timeframe from their initial injury, or where provision of the expert opinion does not occur until this 3-year time limit has expired. This is very generous indeed and good news for our clients.

Two factors do however still need to be borne in mind in this context, before we get too carried away (!), being:

  1. There remains a 3-year outer limit for any extension from when awareness of the relevant matters ought to have arisen.  In other words, there needs to be some reasonable explanation put forward for substantial delay in looking into a claim and obtaining appropriate expert advice, etc;
  2. Further, capacity to seek an extension of time does not guarantee that it will be granted.  In particular, in the event that the doctor, hospital or other health professional can show prejudice because of the delay in a claim being brought, the Court remains perfectly able to refuse to grant an extension despite the discretion arising.

Somewhat disappointingly, the Court of Appeal did not provide any clear guidance in relation to a remaining difficulty with claims and figuring out time limits.  This is the uncertainty as to when the 3 year time limit begins.  This remains unclear because the meaning of Section 55(1)(b) of the legislation and what is meant by when the “first symptom, clinical sign or manifestation of personal injury, consistent with a person having sustained a not insignificant personal injury” occurs.  This determines when the initial 3-year period begins to run. As can be gathered, the meaning of these words is far from obvious…

UK adopts Australian Law to determine whether a warning of risks of treatment options should be given

The UK has recently altered its position in relation to the important question of a doctor’s obligations to warn their patients concerning risks of treatment.

Preceding the decision in Montgomery v. Lanarkshire Health Board [2015] UKSC 11, delivered on 11 March 2015, the UK had long maintained its acceptance of the so-called Bolam principle, reiterated in the mid 1980s by its House of Lords decision in Sidaway, that the question of what information a doctor was obliged to disclose to their patient, concerning risks involved in proposed treatment was essentially a matter determined by the medical profession. It was a defence to any claim that a relevant risk had not been disclosed, to demonstrate that other reasonable doctors would not have informed their patients of such risk.

The Supreme Court in Montgomery reversed this position and adopted the position that has existed in Australia since 1992 and our landmark decision in Rogers v. Whittaker.

The position in the UK, as in Australia, is now that a doctor’s obligation to disclose information relating to proposed treatment, including as to its risks, is determined by the question of whether the patient would be likely to attach significance to it in deciding whether or not to proceed with such treatment. If the patient would be likely to attach such significance, the doctor is obliged to disclose such information including as to the risk.

The test is “patient driven” as it depends on whether they would consider the relevant risk or other information significant in making their decision, rather than being ‘doctor driven‘ by whether the doctor thinks that they ought to attach significance.

There is some irony in the UK altering its position, given Australia has moved away from such ‘patient driven’ position in relation to other non-advice aspects of medical care, by the Civil Liability Acts.

The UK case is also interesting for obstetric care more generally.

The risk about which it was found warning ought to have been given, was the risk shoulder dystocia may occur if Mrs Montgomery delivered her child by a ‘natural’ or vaginal birth. It was found that Mrs Montgomery would have attached significance to this risk if warned of it. This had not occurred and so such lack of advice was found to have been negligent.

Mrs Montgomery was relatively small and a diabetic. While neither of these factors were particularly rare, they did modestly increase the risks of difficulty if such a dystocia occurred.  Mrs. Montgomery’s evidence was accepted that if warned of the risk of shoulder dystocia, even though this was unlikely and unpredictable, she would have elected to give birth via an elective cesarean section rather than a vaginal delivery.  Interestingly, the Supreme Court reversed the trial judge’s conclusion on this, which had been that a warning as to the risk of shoulder dystocia would not have led to the mother electing to proceed via a cesarean delivery.

This is a very common scenario in day-to-day obstetric care. There are very many patients of small stature and diabetic [whether gestational or otherwise]. The case appears to establish that in the UK at least, such patients need to be warned of a risk of shoulder dystocia because it ought to be accepted that such risk may be of significance to the mother in deciding whether to proceed via a natural delivery or ‘elect’ to have a cesarean.

The facts are an excellent example of the difference between the Rogers test and the Bolam approach.

It is also an illustration of why the Rogers test has been so unpopular amongst some medical practitioners who, rightly or wrongly, say the emphasis on patient autonomy potentially leads to patients making ‘wrong’ or poor decisions based on a flawed assessment (or in truth weighting) of the risks relating to their treatment options.

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.

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.

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.

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