Daniel v St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust  and London Ambulance Service [2016] EWHC 23 (QB)

Introduction

Edward Bishop QC has successfully defended an NHS trust and the London Ambulance Service against claims under the Human Rights Act 1998 brought by the foster family of a man who died of a heart attack in Wandsworth Prison.  The judgment deals with the legal test for liability, causation and victim status.  

The central allegation was that there was culpable delay in the attendance of paramedics caused by nursing error and an insufficiently flexible ambulance triage system.  The judge rejected both allegations on the facts and clarified the law on causation in cases of death in custody from natural causes.  She also dealt with “victim status” under the HRA, ruling that the deceased’s foster mother was entitled to bring a claim but his “foster brother” was not.

Background

James Best (“JB”) was a prisoner on remand at Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Wandsworth when he died from natural causes on 8 September 2011. He suffered a myocardial infarction (a heart attack), as a result of a ruptured plaque in the coronary artery, which caused cardiac arrest and death. He was only 37. He had no previous history of heart disease and it is likely that the plaque was ruptured by over-exertion in the prison gym.

The First Defendant (“St George’s”) is a National Health Service (“NHS”) Trust responsible for the provision of primary health care within HMP Wandsworth. Doctors and nurses employed by the First Defendant in the Department of Primary Care at HMP Wandsworth tried unsuccessfully to save JB’s life on the day of his death.

The Second Defendant (“the LAS”) is a NHS Trust responsible for the provision of ambulances within the London area. HMP Wandsworth is within its catchment area. On 8 September 2011, an emergency call for an ambulance for JB was made, but he was dead by the time the ambulance arrived. The central allegations were that the nurse who attended on JB in his cell failed to request an ambulance quickly enough, and further that there was unnecessary and unreasonable delay in the dispatch of an ambulance by the LAS.

The Claimants had a close relationship with JB which began when the First Claimant fostered JB for 3 years when he was a teenager, between 1988 and 1991. The Second Claimant is the First Claimant’s biological son, and described JB as his foster brother.

The Claimants have brought their claim for declarations and damages under the Human Rights Act 1998 (“HRA 1998”), alleging that the First and Second Defendants, as public authorities, acted in breach of Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”).

Violation of Articles 2 and 3

Mrs Justice Lang set out the appropriate legal test to be applied when considering whether or not there had been a breach. She reiterated the guidance:

“I remind myself that the test to be applied is whether the Defendants did “all that could reasonably be expected of them to avoid a real and immediate risk to life of which they have or ought to have knowledge” (Osman at [116]). In Rabone, Lord Dyson considered that an “immediate” risk was one which “present and continuing” (at [39]). He added, at [43]:

“The standard required for the performance of the operational duty is one of reasonableness. This brings in “consideration of the circumstances of the case, the ease or difficulty of taking precautions and the resources available”; per Lord Carswell In re Officer L [2007] 1 WLR 2135 , para 21.

 The ECtHR and the domestic courts have emphasised that the operational duty must not be interpreted in a way “which imposes an impossible or disproportionate burden on the authorities” (Osman at [116])”

 On causation, and having considered the evidence, the test was: the legal test of causation is whether there was a failure to take reasonably available measures which could have had a “real prospect of altering the outcome”. Put another way, the Claimants have to establish that JB “lost a substantial chance of avoiding the outcome”.

The court heard extensive evidence, not just from the actual persons involved in the immediate aftermath, but also from medical experts who gave evidence on the chances of survival following such a heart attack. Careful consideration was given to transcripts of the 999 call-outs, and the exact timing of those calls. The criteria and policy of the ambulance service was scrutinised.

Mrs Justice Lang was emphatic in her dismissal of the claims of breach. She did not consider that the “Claimants have succeeded in establishing, on the balance of probabilities, that, even if [the nurse at the prison] had called an ambulance earlier, or LAS had dispatched an ambulance sooner, that there would have been a “real prospect of altering the outcome” or that JB “lost a substantial chance of avoiding the outcome”.

As for the claims brought under Article 3, the Judge said: “The claim under Article 3 was unarguable, in my view. [the prison nurse] acted promptly, reasonably and professionally and did all she could to save JB’s life. There was no unreasonable delay in calling an ambulance. The LAS handled the emergency call in accordance with their procedures which were required to ensure that a limited resource of emergency vehicles and personnel were allocated fairly within the community according to priority need. ” It certainly did not amount to “inhuman and degrading treatment”.

Victim status

Both Claimants brought claims alleging that they were “indirect victims”. Mrs Justice Lang considered the law on victim status, and set out the relevant test:

“In my judgment, the likely approach of the ECtHR in determining the status of the Claimants in this case would be to consider all the facts and circumstances to assess:

  • 1. the nature of the legal/family relationship between the Claimants and JB;
  • 2. the nature of the personal ties between the Claimants and JB;
  • 3. the extent to which the alleged violations of the Convention (1) affected them personally and (2) caused them to suffer;
  • 4. involvement in the proceedings arising out of JB’s death.”

On applying that criteria, she was satisfied that the first Claimant was a indirect victim as she had been JB’s foster mother for three years, leading to a longstanding parent-child relationship. JB had no other family of his own, and shortly before his death referred to himself as the first Claimant’s “third son”. Not only this, but the first Claimant had clearly suffered from acute distress following JB’s demise, and had been extremely active in the aftermath of his death.

However, the second Claimant was found not be an indirect victim. The status of “foster brother” is not recognised in UK domestic law or in ECtHR case law. There can be no question that the second Claimant suffered hugely from the loss of a close friend; but this alone is not a sufficient basis on which to found a claim.

The claims were dismissed.