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Doctors not liable to patients’ families, Supreme Court confirms

Doctors do not owe a duty of care to their patients’ families to protect them against psychiatric illness that might be caused from witnessing the death of loved ones, the Supreme Court ruled in a majority verdict today. 

The judgment covers three cases, heard together, where the claimants sought compensation for psychiatric illnesses caused by seeing the death of a close relative in distressing circumstances. In each case, the death was allegedly caused by the doctor or health authority’s negligence.

All three cases were dismissed by a majority of six to one.

Lord Leggatt and Lady Rose, with whom Lord Briggs, Lord Sales and Lord Richards agreed, said: ‘The common law does not recognise one person as having any legally compensable interest in the physical well-being of another. The law affords compensation to the victim but not to others who suffer harm in consequence of the victim’s injuries or death, however severely affected they may be.’

The judgment overturns earlier authorities: North Glamorgan NHS Trust v Walters [2002], which was wrongly decided and Sion v Hampstead Health Authority [1994], Shorter v Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust [2015] and Liverpool Women’s Hospital NHS Foundation Trust v Ronayne [2015] which were correctly decided on a wrong basis.

It states that a doctor who treats a patient does not enter into a doctor-patient relationship with any member of the patient’s family. The judges add that the responsibilities of a medical practitioner do not extend to protecting members of the patient’s family from exposure traumatic experiences. ‘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.’

Society has not yet reached a point where the experience of witnessing the death of a close family member ’is something from which a person can reasonably expect to be shielded by the medical profession’.

Dismissing the appeals, the judges said no one could hear about the events experienced by the claimants ‘without being moved by the terrible distress caused to them by the sudden deaths…and the shocking circumstances in which those deaths occurred’.

Lord Carloway, who gave a concurring judgment said, the same result would be reached under Scots law.

However in a dissenting judgment, Lord Burrows said the appeals presented a ‘rare opportunity…to move the law forward…to a more satisfactory position’.

He said the relevant event should be treated as the death ‘not least because it was witnessing the death or its immediate aftermath that caused the psychiatric illness to the secondary victims’. The psychiatric illness as a consequence of the death was ‘reasonably foreseeable’ and so, there should be liability ‘because it is not in dispute that, once one treats the event as the death, all the established proximity or control factors are satisfied’.

He added: ‘One might argue that the approach I am adopting does not represent any development of the law but is merely the correct application of the existing law to new facts.’

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