- January 11, 2024
- Posted by: Suzanne Dennehy
- Category: News
UK Supreme Court dismisses claims by Secondary Victims of Clinical Negligence by a majority of 6-1. Here Alison Kelleher, Partner gives an overview of the judgement and what this means for Claimants in Ireland.
The “Paul” decision is a long awaited Supreme Court Judgment following a decision by the Court of Appeal in 2022 to dismiss three claimants claims for damages for psychiatric injuries arising from the death of family members in separate and unrelated but very tragic and distressing circumstances.
In each of the three cases the Defendant sought to have the claimant’s claims dismissed and by a majority of 6-1, the Supreme Court today dismissed the appeals.
The issues considered by the Supreme Court were not whether there was negligence on the part of the defendants in causing the deceased’s death, but rather, whether the healthcare providers were legally responsible for the psychiatric injuries of a secondary victim, a close relative of the deceased.
Duty Of Care
The Supreme Court was tasked with considering whether a health service provider not only owes a duty to the patient to take care to protect the patient from harm, but also owes a duty to close members of the patient’s family to take care to protect them against the risk of injury that they might suffer from the experience of witnessing the death or injury of their relative from an illness caused by the a healthcare provider’s negligence.
In dismissing the three claims and upholding the decision of the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court concluded that while the health service providers owe a duty of care to their patients, they do not owe a duty of care to members of the patient’s close family in the context of the family member witnessing the death of their relative.
Comparing circumstances where a person’s own life is put into danger as against an injury arising from witnesses a loved one’s life being put in danger the court concluded that the two events cannot be conflated.
The Supreme Court concluded that the duty of care provided by a clinician or health service provider does not extend to protecting members of the patient’s close family from exposure to a traumatic exposure to a death or serious injury to their loved ones. The court commented that
“Common to all cases of this kind, however, is a fundamental question about the nature of the doctor’s role and the purposes for which medical care is provided to a patient. We are not able to accept that the responsibilities of a medical practitioner, and the purposes for which care is provided, extend to protecting members of the patient’s close family from exposure to the traumatic experience of witnessing the death or manifestation of disease or injury in their relative. To impose such a responsibility on hospitals and doctors would go beyond what, in the current state of our society, is reasonably regarded as the nature and scope of their role.
- There is no doubt that witnessing the death from disease of a close family member can have a powerful psychological impact additional to the grief and deep distress caused by the fact of the death. … although social attitudes and expectations may be changing, we would not accept that our society has yet reached a point where the experience of witnessing the death of a close family member from disease is something from which a person can reasonably expect to be shielded by the medical profession. That is so whether the death is slow or sudden, occurs in a hospital, at home or somewhere else, and whether it be peaceful or painful for the dying person. We do not mean in any way to minimise the psychological effects which such an experience may have on the person’s parent, child or partner when we express our view that, in the perception of the ordinary reasonable person, such an experience is not an insult to health from which we expect doctors to take care to protect us but a vicissitude of life which is part of the human condition. witnessing the death of a close family member from disease is something from which a person can reasonably expect to be shielded by the medical profession”.
What does this mean for Claimants in Ireland ?
In Ireland we are familiar with the concept of nervous shock claims whereby claim for compensation can be brought by a person witnessing a negligent accident or in limited circumstances, an aftermath of an accident in which a close family member suffers a serious injury or death. This has, in the past, included, in limited circumstances, psychiatric injuries caused by negligently provided medical treatment to a loved one.
This decision of the UK Supreme Court precluding “nervous shock” claims by the loved ones of patients, against healthcare providers, is of course not binding in Ireland will be of interest to all clinical and legal practitioners in this jurisdiction.
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