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Cervical Cancer Update – Decision of Supreme Court in Ruth Morrissey


Posted in [Blog Medical Negligence ] on Wednesday, April 15th, 2020

On the 19th March 2020, the Supreme Court dismissed most of the appeals by the Health Service Executive (HSE) and two laboratories, Quest Diagnostics Incorporated and Medlab Pathology Limited against a High Court judgment in favour of Ruth Morrissey and her husband Paul Morrissey arising from the misreading of her cervical smear tests.

Background

Ruth Morrissey was not told until 2018, that a review carried out in 2014, showed smears taken under the CervicalCheck screening programme in 2009 and 2012, had been incorrectly reported. Her cancer returned in 2018 and she now faces a terminal diagnosis.

In July 2019, Mr. Justice Cross made an award in Mr. and Mrs. Morrissey’s favour of €2,152,508 against all three Defendants and an additional sum of €10,000 in nominal damages as against the HSE, in respect of its failure to notify her of the results of the audits of her earlier smear tests.

Supreme Court Appeal

The High Court decision was appealed to the Supreme Court.  The Government had guaranteed in the Dáil and correspondence from the Chief State Solicitor, irrespective of the outcome, Ruth and Paul Morrissey would retain the entire damages, plus their legal costs.

The HSE argued that Mr. Justice Cross’s finding that individual screeners must have absolute confidence before passing a test as negative had far-reaching consequences, and that it would affect cancer screening services and medical diagnoses generally.

Chief Justice Frank Clarke noted that the question in the case was what the professional duty in screening should be and whether it was proven that the actions of any of cervical screening professional had fallen below the reasonable standard that they should have applied. The court was told that UK professionals in this field apply a standard of “absolute confidence”.

The Supreme Court held that the High Court was correct in applying a standard for screening where screeners should have no doubt that a sample is adequate, and that it does not contain any suspicious material, before stating that it is clear.  It was the experts, not the court, who identified the standard expected of a normally competent screener as being one which precludes giving a clear result, unless, there was absolute confidence that the test was clear.

The Supreme Court judgment in Dunne v National Maternity Hospital remains the legal standard in clinical or professional negligence claims, which is whether no reasonable professional of the type concerned could have carried out their task in the manner which occurred in the case in question.

The most professional screening, carried out to the very highest standards may still lead to different results by competent professionals, and a retrospective review of the screens following diagnosis may also give another result.  This is a matter that must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

The Supreme Court held that Mr. Justice Cross was incorrect to hold that the HSE was vicariously liable for the negligent acts of the laboratories.  However, the HSE had a “non-delegable duty”, which he described as a “potentially developing area of primary liability” in respect of patients availing of CervicalCheck.  The part of the HSE’s appeal which suggested it should not be fixed with any liability in respect of negligence established against the laboratories was dismissed.

The Supreme court allowed Medlab’s appeal over damages awarded to Paul Morrissey to account for services which would have been provided to the family by Mrs. Morrissey were it not for her shortened life expectancy.  The law in this area may be “potentially anomalous” in certain respects but that is a matter for the Oireachtas.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court upheld key High Court findings concerning the legal standard of care for cervical cancer screening in particular a screener should not give a clear result in respect of a slide “unless they had no doubt but that the sample was adequate and did not contain any suspicious material”.

While the High Court was incorrect in finding the HSE was vicariously liable for the negligent acts of laboratories in Ms Morrissey’s case, the HSE did have a non-delegable duty in respects of patients availing of Cervical Check. In short, the HSE were liable for the failings of the laboratories.

The Supreme Court’s decision will impact on other cervical cancer cases and the work of the Cervical Check tribunal.

Contact Our Medical Negligence Solicitors in Cork

If you are looking to make a cancer misdiagnosis claim, please contact Cantillons Solicitors using the contact form below, call us on +353 (0)21 4275673 or email us at info@cantillons.com for more information. Our offices are located at 39 South Mall, Cork. We do, however, represent clients from all over Ireland. Should you be unable to attend our offices, we are more than happy to travel to you, or conduct the meeting on Zoom.

* In contentious business, a solicitor may not calculate fees or other charges as a percentage of any award or settlement.

Amy Connolly

Associate

Experience

Amy joined Cantillons in 2013 having graduated with an Honours Bachelor of Civil Law Degree from University College Cork. She successfully completed her Law Society FE-1 Examinations and received an award for achieving the highest mark in the Law of Tort exam in the 2015 sittings. Thereafter she completed the Law Society Professional Practice Courses at Blackhall Place, Dublin.

Amy spent two years in the Medical Negligence Department working on various cases involving birth injuries, cancer misdiagnosis, surgical errors and fatal claims.

Amy is currently working in the General Litigation Department and advises clients in relation to all aspects of civil litigation; to include personal injury claims, accidents at work, road traffic accidents, public liability claims, farming accidents, claims against local authorities and claims against the HSE. She has successfully represented clients before the District Court, Circuit Court, High Court, and Court of Appeal and has been involved in a number of high profile cases.

Amy is also a member of the Residential Tenancies Board Panel of Solicitors, enforcing RTB Determination Orders in the District Court.

Qualifications

Honours Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Law
Completed Law Society Professional Practice Courses at Blackhall Place, Dublin

 

Related Experts

Ernest J. Cantillon

Managing Partner

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