As is well known, I act for Billy Wright, the 61 year old aboriginal man, who is the Plaintiff in a medical negligence claim against Broome Hospital in relation to medical care he received at such hospital in July 2004.

Billy’s case arose from his attending such hospital with an acute onset of severe abdominal pain, which he identified when he awoke on 3 July 2004.  After being kept for observation for an hour or so, Billy was sent home.  He was taken back to hospital about 40 hours later by family and by this time was acutely unwell and at danger of not surviving, due to septic shock/sepsis.

Billy’s claim proceeded to trial before Judge Fenbury of our District Court, with days of hearing in Broome and Perth late last year and early this year.

Pleasingly, Judge Fenbury found in Billy’s favour, concluding the hospital had been negligent in its care of him and awarded him damages when he delivered his decision in late March 2009.  Judge Fenbury found that the hospital ought to have kept Billy for observation and further investigation and not sent him home when they did (see Wright -v- WA Country Health Service [2009] WADC 46) .

The hospital have appealed, though not in relation to the finding it was negligent, only as to Judge Fenbury’s finding that such negligence caused harm to Billy, through progression of his illness while he was at home (though this point does not seem, with respect, to have been properly appreciated by Justice Newnes, see his summary of the appeal at [5] of the decision referred to below).

On 9 October 2009, argument occurred as to whether the hospital should pay Billy some or all of his compensation, pending hearing and determination of his appeal.

Billy had explained that he wished to utilise a part of the damages he has been awarded in order to purchase a "new" vehicle (estimated at a cost of $25,000) to transport his ill wife, who requires regular 3 times per week dialysis treatment, from their remote community home, to Derby, which is where such treatment is provided.

The well accepted rule is that generally a successful party should be entitled to be paid damages they are awarded, even if an appeal is lodged.  It is accepted that ‘special circumstances’ are needed to be shown for the unsuccessful party to avoid such obligation to make payment.

After hearing argument on 9 Oct 09 Justice Newnes determined that the hospital should not be obliged to make payment, until (unless) the appeal is decided against it (WA Country Health Service -v- Wright [2009] WASCA 177).  Despite the ‘special circumstances’ test being accepted by the hospital and Justice Newnes, he concluded that it should not be obliged to make payment, because if it did, there was some danger that it may not ultimately receive back such funds from Mr Wright or if it did, this may be over a period or involve inconvenience.

Interestingly, contrary to the submissions put before him, that recognised that if a discretion to grant a stay arose, this involved a question of the ‘balance of convenience,’ Justice Newnes described the test as tougher from Mr Wright’s perspective.  He put it at one point as being whether not requiring payment would "impose unreasonable hardship" on the party who had won at trial (in this case, Billy) (see at [11])..

Ultimately Justice Newnes concluded (though there was no evidence before him to this effect) that there was likely to be a significant loss on a resale of the vehicle Billy intended to purchase and his modest financial circumstances were such that repayment of any balance would take a long time (see at [17]).  For this reason he refused to require the hospital to make payment of any monies at this time.

This is a very tough decision in my view.  In no way is the fact Billy is poor, a ‘special circumstance.’  Many, many clients I have and do represent come from a poor socio-economic background.  That no obligation to pay arises in this case, suggests that nothing special is in fact required.  It seems, if Justice Newnes is right, that if a poorly off plaintiff succeeds at trial, a wealthy defendant (or its insurer) can avoid making any payment, if it appeals, until after such appeal is completed.  It can do this if it can show any chance that repayment of the money to be paid may be other than absolutely straightforward.