We all expect that dispensing errors will be decriminalised soon.  However, pharmacists and pharmacy owners should not be complacent. If an error causes the death of a patient, there remains the risk of a manslaughter prosecution.

In case you missed some of these items in the news, they should make you sit up:

  • In 2013, Dr David Sellu, a surgeon, received a 30-month prison sentence for manslaughter.
  • In April this year, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust was charged with the corporate manslaughter of a young teacher.
  • In September this year, a Boots optometrist was charged with the manslaughter of an 8-year old boy because she allegedly failed to notice the medical condition which later caused his death.
  • In November this year, a nurse was found guilty of manslaughter of a 6-year old boy.

The offence of “medical manslaughter” involves causing or contributing to the death of a patient through gross negligence – in other words, the conduct of the defendant is so bad in all the circumstances as to amount to a criminal act or omission.

In two of the cases I have listed, a jury has yet to decide on guilt. However, there are two striking things, apart from the severity a prison sentence.

So far as I know, no pharmacist has ever been convicted of manslaughter. Optometrists would say the same: the charge against the Boots optometrist is believed to be the first time an optometrist has been charged with manslaughter.

The case against Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells is also a first. It is the first time an NHS Trust has been charged under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. Corporate homicide involves negligence that falls far below what can reasonably be expected. A company can only be charged if the way its activities are managed or organised by its senior management is a substantial element in the negligence. Companies can’t be sent to prison, but the financial implications of a conviction are harsh: published guidelines indicate that fines will seldom be less than £500,000.

Medical manslaughter prosecutions seem to be on the increase. Manslaughter charges have been brought against pharmacists before, but none have yet been successful. Most pharmacies businesses are run by companies, and these are now also in the line of fire. Whatever the size of these companies, their senior management should be constantly reviewing the way their activities are managed to minimise the risk of fatalities.

This article was originally published in Chemist & Druggist, December 2015