I note with interest the Court of Appeal’s decision in Nigam v Harm [2011] WASCA 211.

Whilst a case concerning a negligence action against a firm of solicitors, the important aspects of the case predominantly related to medical negligence claims.  

It was alleged the relevant firm of solicitors had been negligent in failing to:

  • take action to protect a potential medical negligence claim by Mrs Harm against surgeon, Dr Hastwell.
  • pursue various lines of investigation concerning possible lack of care on the part of the relevant surgeon, Dr Hastwell.

Mrs Harm had succeeded in her case against such solicitors at trial, but on appeal, such claim was overturned. The court majority concluded that the solicitors had not been negligent.

For a lawyer working in this area, it was interesting to read the degree of initiative/imagination considered required on the part of solicitors investigating quality of medical care issues.. My impression was that the ‘bar’ was set lower than I would expect.

This was particularly so, in relation to the issue of reminding Ms Harm about the impending expiry of the ‘holding’ writ that had been lodged (which would end any claim if it expired without action).  Given it seems she was still eager to pursue claim, I am surprised her solicitor was not considered obliged to remind her of this deadline so a decision could be made, whether the writ was served (or an application made to extend), given the consequences if it was not (which it was not clear to me, from reading the decision, she knew).

Justice Newnes made interesting comments in relation to the one area he did consider the solicitors ought to have considered some prospects of a legitimate claim, a claim that the surgeon had failed to appropriately warn Mrs Harm of the risk that the surgery may cause significant post-operative nerve pain in the area of scarring at her surgical incision (see for example @ [116] – [121]).

His Honour concluded, that any claim by Mrs Harms would not have prevailed, because she would not have proved that if warned she would not have gone ahead with such surgery.

With respect, I am not sure the evidence really supported such a conclusion (as distinct from a conclusion that ‘no conclusion’ could be drawn, because too many important things were unknown relevant to such decision (for example: the true scale of such risk, the alternatives open to her, other than such surgery {including the risk if it was performed laparoscopically, if this was possible}).

Justice Newnes view was shared by McLure P and so prevailed.   Interestingly, Justice Murphy disagreed and considered the solicitor had been negligent in relation to this failure to warn aspect of the potential claim.