In Varipatis v. Almario  NSWCA 76, the New South Wales Court of Appeal reversed the trial judge’s finding in favor of an obese patient alleging negligence on the part of his general practitioner in failing to refer him for weight loss surgery.
The trial decision, which on any assessment was generous to the plaintiff Mr. Almario, had generated media attention and concern that it in effect required such a referral in any case in which an obese patient with a co-morbidity [in this case diabetes] presented to a general practitioner. Furthermore, that in some way the general practitioner’s obligations went beyond firm counselling the patient as to the need for weight loss and health risks if this did not eventuate.
The case must be treated with caution in relation to contemporary medical practice, given the time of the relevant GP care in issue. On appeal it was significant that the link between obesity and liver disease was not well understood until 2002, which followed the relevant care [and is indicative of the time this case took to proceed].
No doubt the trial judge had considerable sympathy with Mr. Almario’s situation. At the time of trial he suffered from advanced liver cancer with no likelihood of long term survival.
The case on its facts presents a good reminder of the difficult evidentiary path patients [and so plaintiffs] may face in establishing their case and the obstacle the burden of proof creates. On reading the decision I was reminded of the analogy given to me by a senior lawyer, years ago, that a complex plaintiff’s case is like constructing a multi-storey house of cards, with a doctor or hospital only having to dislodge a single ‘card,’ or step in the chain for the claim to fail. Further, to dislodge a card, all the hospital or doctor need do is create doubt. They often have no need to prove anything: only to create doubt..
In Almario, amongst other steps (or ‘cards’) that Mr Almario had to satisfy to prove his case, even if it was accepted that he should have been referred to a bariatric surgeon for consideration of weight loss surgery, were:
- that such surgeon would have recommended surgery for him;
- that Mr Almario would have decided to proceed with such surgery, even if recommended (appreciating it was clear there were risks of complications associated with such surgery, of significance);
- that the surgery would have been successful technically (again, there were well recognised risks this would not occur);
- that even if such surgery was successful, Mr Almario would have achieved persisting weight loss (noting the risk of this, even when all went well, was in some quarters 50%);
- that such weight loss would have avoided Mr Almario developing cancer.
This, it can be gathered, was a formidable task.. If cumulatively considered, it was easy to see why a conclusion would be reached that it was far less than an even chance that Mr Almario would have got to the end (built his complete house of cards).
An intriguing issue is whether such issues should be considered collectively or sequentially: from a plaintiff’s perspective, there is a clear significant benefit of the latter (ie if you prove step 1 on a balance of probabilities, you move to stage 2 and consider it), rather than the former. My impression is that the trial judge followed this sequential fact finding process.
The appeal succeeded largely because the Court of Appeal did not accept that the trial judge’s reasoning and generous factual conclusions were justifiable, rather than any issue of legal principle. The Appeal Court were not satisfied, even had a referral for advice by a bariatric surgeon occurred, that Mr. Almario would have proceeded with the surgery and that such surgery would have been successful, such as to avoid the development of his liver condition and subsequent cancer.