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NHS must pay compensation to daughter of woman who killed herself

28 April 2010

The NHS has been ordered to pay £10,000 compensation to the daughter of a woman who escaped from a mental hospital and killed herself.

Giving judgment in Savage v South Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust [2010] EWHC 865 (QB), Mr Justice Mackay said Carol Savage was a patient at Runwell Hospital when she died by throwing herself in front of a train.

The House of Lords ruled in December 2008 that hospitals were under a positive obligation under article 2 of the ECHR (right to life) to protect the lives of suicidal patients (see solicitorsjournal.com 16 December 2008).

The law lords rejected the NHS Trust’s appeal. Mackay J said the obligation arose where there was a “real and immediate” risk and members of staff knew or ought to have known that the particular patient presented such a risk.

The judge said that Savage presented a “real and immediate” risk of absconding and a similar risk of suicide.

“As to whether the defendant did all it could reasonably have been expected to do, the answer to that must be that it did not,” he said.

“At the least there was a real prospect or substantial chance that had she been made subject to level two observations at 15 or even 30 minute intervals she would not have slipped away unnoticed in the way she did on the 5 July.”

Mackay J said that in his judgment all that was required to give Savage a real prospect or substantial chance of survival was the imposition of a raised level of observations, “which would not have been an unreasonable or unduly onerous step to require of the defendant in the light of the evidence in this case”.

The judge said that under European case law relatives had standing to bring claims based on violations of article 2.

“It seems clear to me that the claimant is entitled to bring this claim as a victim,” Mackay J said. “The deceased was her mother to whom she was close and, one might add, much of the deceased’s final illness centred around a deluded but sincere concern for the safety of the claimant.”

He said that under the Human Rights Act he had to take into account principles applied by the ECtHR when awarding compensation to Anna Savage.

“The amount I grant under this head, and I think it is right to make an award, can never compensate her for the loss of her mother and can only be a symbolic acknowledgement that the defendant ought to give her some compensation to reflect that loss.”

Mackay J assessed the figure at £10,000.

Saimo Chahal, partner at Bindmans, acted for Anna Savage. “This is a significant case because it shows for the first time that family members can bring a claim where a health authority fails in its responsibilities towards a vulnerable detained patient,” she said.

Chahal said there were “very significant risks to the life of Mrs Savage” that staff at the hospital failed to appreciate.

“There was a previous incident when she had been found wondering confused on the A130 between cars – wishing to kill herself.

“It is incredible to think that these risks were not identified and simple measures to protect Carole Savage were not taken. Sadly there is not even the excuse of being under-resourced as is so often stated in these circumstances.”

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Divorce Children Procedures Vulnerable Clients