Laurence Vick
Posted on 19 Mar 2014

Bristol Child Heart Case Settles for Seven-Figure Sum

Settlement approved at Royal Courts of Justice hearing

University Hospitals Bristol Trust has settled the claim of a woman, injured during surgery in 1994, for a seven-figure sum.

Nathalie Sugden was born with a congenital heart defect, and underwent surgery at the infamous Bristol Royal Infirmary, subject of the public inquiry which concluded in 2001. When she suffered a cardiac arrest during surgery, the surgeon, James Wisheart, failed to perform a cardiac massage to re-start her heart. Nathalie was left without blood-flow to her brain for nearly 15 minutes; she suffered a severe brain injury as a result of the arrest, and was left with several serious health conditions.

The claim was lodged at the court in 2011, after details of the claim and full allegations had been submitted in 2009, and a trial was listed to begin in March 2014. However, with only weeks to go until the trial date, and after withdrawing an earlier offer, the Trust finally proposed to settle. The Trust did not admit liability.

Michelmores' Laurence Vick represented Nathalie's family in her claim. Laurence was joint lead solicitor to the families at the Bristol Inquiry, and has handled an estimated 100 cases arising from operations carried out by James Wisheart and his colleague Janardan Dhasmana at Bristol between 1982 and 1995.

During the litigation following the inquiry, Laurence calculated that there had in fact been approximately 170 avoidable deaths, with an unknown number of children suffering non-fatal failures. The fatal cases were settled in the wake of the Inquiry report in 2001. In cases of severe brain injury resulting in incapacity, there is effectively no time limit for bringing a claim.

‘It is so disappointing that this case is only now coming to a conclusion, so long after Nathalie sustained her injuries,' Laurence says. 'This litigation is, after all, funded at public expense. I share the family's disappointment and frustration that the NHS Litigation Authority chose to fight this case instead of admitting liability a decade ago.

‘They had an opportunity to do so when we proposed that, in all the Bristol cases, liability be admitted immediately following the public inquiry in 2001, so that we could negotiate and get compensation to help families like Nathalie's. But throughout, the hospital and the NHSLA have denied all responsibility, in spite of what took place at the inquiry, and the fact that the surgeon in question was struck off for his incompetence.'

Controversy surrounded Bristol from the early 1990s, and the concerns were such that, by 1992, a Private Eye report described insiders referring to the unit as 'the departure lounge' and the 'killing fields.' 'Arguably,' Laurence says, 'Bristol should not have been accepting children for surgery at that time, with all the known problems at the unit. Families like Nathalie's should have been informed of the additional risks their child would face when undergoing surgery at Bristol at that time, as opposed to safer units elsewhere.

‘Now, on the eve of a two week trial, the NHSLA have agreed to settle out of court. We obviously welcome this outcome, and the fair settlement that has been reached, providing financial security for Nathalie for the rest of her life. I feel strongly, however, that another 'forgotten family', whose child's operation falls outside the mortality-based statistics, has had to live through the nightmare of what happened to their child, without compensation - in this case for 20 years.'

In a brief statement, Nathalie's parents said: ‘We would like to thank all the professionals involved for their contribution to this successful outcome. Our focus remains on the well-being of our daughter in the coming years, and making sure the legal and practical support is in place to allow her to live life as independently as possible.'

You can read the Bristol Post article on the Nathalie Sugden settlement here.

If you would like to discuss a claim relating to child cardiac surgery, you can contact us for free, discreet and impartial advice.