Any unexpected death in Hospital is reported to the local Coroner, and at this point the inquest into a patient’s death is open.
An interim death certificate is usually issued once a pathologist’s report is prepared. In most cases this will be based upon a post-mortem examination in an attempt to establish the precise cause of death.
If there remain uncertainties regarding the circumstances of death, the Coroner will conduct further investigations and this will involve an Inquest hearing at the Coroner’s Court.
The purpose of the Inquest is to establish:
- The identity of the deceased
- When the death occurred
- Where the death occurred
- How the deceased came by their death
The ‘who, when and where’ questions are usually straightforward to answer where the Inquest is into a death occurring following medical treatment. The question of ‘how’ the deceased came by their death is usually the key issue for bereaved families and it is also usually the issue that requires substantial investigation.
The Coroner has a wide scope to call witnesses at an Inquest hearing, however, both the family and the hospital may make representations to the Coroner that certain witnesses should be called. In cases where there are complicated issues of medical practice, the Coroner may decide to call an independent medical expert.
The purpose of an Inquest is not to establish blame, but it is to establish the facts. Often there is overlap between the two. However, a Coroner will prohibit questions from either party that might give rise to liability for the death.
Because the purpose of an Inquest is a fact-finding exercise, there is no automatic provision for a family to be represented by a lawyer. This can often put the family’s interests at a disadvantage because the medical establishment will almost always have legal representation.
Inquests are a particularly stressful and often a harrowing experience for bereaved relatives and wherever possible legal representation should be provided to ensure that the family’s interests are put forward fairly at the Inquest hearing.
The Coroner’s decision will not in itself render the hospital liable for the death, but the Coroner’s reasoning may imply that death could have been avoided had suitable medical treatment been provided. A clinical negligence claim often follows an Inquest hearing.
In cases concerning fatalities in hospital, damages can sometimes be recovered to compensate families for losses such as, but not limited to the lost earnings of the deceased, the loss of services that the deceased provided, loss of care, love and assistance, as well as damages to reflect the grief that the family has experienced.
Cases concerning a preventable death can arise from a wide range of circumstances and cases dealt with by the clinical negligence team at Geldards include:
- Delay in diagnosis of cancer
- Failure to follow up deep vein thrombosis
- Failure to diagnose brain haemorrhage
- Prescription errors
- Negligently performed surgery
Cases involving fatalities are extremely sensitive matters and it is imperative that adequate compensation is recovered in respect of loss of earnings and services that the family member provided.
The team at Geldards has experience in personally representing families at Inquests as well as securing substantial settlements following a preventable death. If you would like to discuss a potential claim following a death in hospital, please contact one of our specialist lawyers who will arrange a free initial consultation.
CLAIMANT v ABERTAWE BRO MORGANNWG UNIVERSITY LOCAL HEALTH BOARD
The claim was brought by an executor acting on behalf of the estate of his deceased father.
The deceased died at University Hospital Wales after being treated by Princess of Wales Hospital, Bridgend, for 2 weeks. He had been admitted to Princess of Wales Hospital with suspected shingles.
The deceased required continual ambulatory peritoneal dialysis and would normally be admitted to renal units in Cardiff or Swansea. Difficulties administering dialysis ensued for a fortnight and the deceased contracted peritonitis which led to septicaemia and ultimately his death. Liability and Causation were admitted. The claim was limited to the deceased’s pain and suffering and there were no persons eligible for the statutory bereavement award.
A full apology was issued to the Executor and the claim was settled without issuing proceedings. The health board developed a resource pack to ensure the safe management of these patients in future.