Bereaved families who see loved ones die due to negligence cannot sue – Supreme Court

Bereaved families cannot claim compensation over the psychological impact of seeing a loved one die due to negligence by medical professionals, the Supreme Court has ruled.

Three families who witnessed the traumatic loss of relatives had sued for damages over “psychiatric illnesses” they said were triggered by the deaths.

Each alleged that the deaths were caused by doctors failing to diagnose and treat a life-threatening condition and that relatives should be compensated for the mental impact of witnessing them.

The Court of Appeal had previously dismissed the claims, brought against two NHS trusts and an individual doctor, in May 2023, with the three families later taking their cases to the UK’s highest court.

But in a ruling on Thursday, Supreme Court justices ruled six to one in favour of dismissing the families’ appeals.

In their judgment, Lord Leggatt and Lady Rose stated that while witnessing a loved one’s death would likely be “a disturbing and upsetting event”, it was not the role of doctors to prevent family members from doing so.

They said in a ruling backed by Lords Briggs, Sales, Richards and Carloway: “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.”

The three cases, in which no allegations have been proven in court, revolved around whether witnessing a death of or injury to a close relative caused by clinical negligence could be classed as a type of “personal injury” over which someone can claim compensation.

The two NHS trusts and doctor defending against the claims have previously said they should be thrown out of court as they cannot succeed under the law.

One case was brought by the daughters of Parminder Singh Paul, Saffron and Mya Paul, after their father died following a cardiac arrest in the street in January 2014.

His daughters, then aged nine and 12, witnessed the event and saw paramedics performing CPR on their father, who was pronounced dead when he arrived at a hospital.

They brought a claim against the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust, alleging medics had failed to adequately treat Mr Paul for a heart problem in 2012, and sought damages for “psychiatric illness” they claimed was caused by witnessing their father’s death.

Another case was brought by Lynette and Mark Polmear, the parents of Esmee Polmear, who died aged six from the effects of pulmonary veno-occlusive disease in July 2015.

They took legal action against the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust after witnessing her death, with her father giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in an attempt to revive her. Both parents were later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

The trust had previously admitted in January 2015 that doctors should have diagnosed Esmee’s condition when she visited a hospital with breathing difficulties in December 2014.

A third case was launched against Dr Mahmud Ahmed by Tara Purchase, the mother of 20-year-old Evelyn Purchase, who died from severe pneumonia in April 2013.

The court was told Dr Ahmed failed to diagnose the condition when Ms Purchase visited a GP three days before her death, with her mother later receiving a voicemail containing audio of her daughter’s final breaths.

This led to her being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, severe chronic anxiety and depression, for which she also sought damages.

While acknowledging the “grief and deep distress” of the deaths, Lord Leggatt and Lady Rose said that society had not yet reached the stage where families “can reasonably expect to be shielded” from seeing a loved one’s death by medical staff.

They said: “No one could read or hear about the events which Saffron and Mya Paul, Lynette and Mark Polmear and Tara Purchase experienced without being moved by the terrible distress caused to them by the sudden deaths of, respectively, Parminder Singh Paul, Esmee Polmear and Evelyn Purchase and the shocking circumstances in which those deaths occurred.

“The thought that these tragic events could have been avoided if the hospital or doctor had exercised due care must, as in every case of wrongful death, add further to the agony and perhaps anger that they feel.

“The law cannot, however, impose duties and liabilities on the basis of sympathy, however strongly felt.”

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