Husband’s shock at wife “looking like the Michelin Man” compensated

The NHS litigation authority is concerned that an ongoing ‘test case’ in which the Court of Appeal has currently reserved judgment could open the floodgates to the claims of secondary victims who witness their spouse or another close family member suffering following instances of medical negligence. Bedford medical negligence solicitor Hannah Young explains more. 

In 2013, Edward Ronayne was awarded £9,000 (in addition to compensation paid separately to his wife) following her botched hysterectomy at Liverpool Women’s Hospital in response to his claim for psychiatric injury caused by the shock of seeing his wife suffering from peritonitis. He said that the severe bodily swelling caused by this life threatening condition had left her “looking like the Michelin Man” following the hospital’s negligence.

It is an accepted legal principle that witnesses of a traumatic event, if ‘proximal’ to the victim in terms of relationship, space and time, have a claim in damages if they can prove that they suffered psychiatric injury due to the sudden shock of the trauma witnessed. However, over the years, cases such as those borne out of the Hillsborough disaster, have limited the circumstances in which such a claim can be made.

The present case of Ronayne could therefore be a u-turn if the award is upheld by the Court.

The NHS argue that there was no basis for the finding that Mr Ronayne’s injury (more particularly a diagnosed ‘adjustment disorder’) was caused by a sudden shocking event. They say that, by virtue of her hospitalisation, Mr Ronayne would have expected his wife to look unwell and that “it is unfortunately a matter of day-to-day occurrence that great emotional responses will take place in a hospital” (Cory-Wright QC).

Of course, it is a fine line for the judiciary to tread. Medical negligence often has more victims than the patient, with spouses, parents and children often all bearing their own mental scars. Should these victims be any less compensated than the patient suffering the physical injury? As a claimant solicitor I would tend to think not. However, it seems likely that, in light of an already stretched NHS budget, policy issues will play a huge part in the Court of Appeal’s decision, which is, at the time of writing, yet to be handed down.  

Watch this space!

For more information or if you would like a confidential chat about related matters, please get in contact with Bedford solicitor Hannah Young