Just a quick post, appreciating I’ve been lax of late, to note the High Court handed down its decision today, rejecting the appeal against the NSW Court of Appeal’s decision, against the plaintiff in this case.  Does this mean the end of ‘loss of a chance" damages in Australia?

I will digest the decision and

Further to an earlier post, the New South Wales Court of Appeal has recently delivered its decision concerning the appeal in relation to Ms O’Gorman’s delay in diagnosis of breast cancer claim.

Tragically in the period between the initial decision in her favour and this appeal, Ms O’Gorman died from her metastatic breast cancer.   As a consequence the appeal was contested by her Estate.
The Area Health Service responsible for BreastScreen New South Wales, the Sydney South-West Area Health Service succeeded in its appeal and the Court of Appeal have ordered a re-trial on the issue of negligence.

The primary reason for the Appeal being upheld and a re-trial being ordered was the Court of Appeal’s view that the trial judge had been wrong to refuse to allow the two radiologists involved in assessing Ms O’Gorman’s original breast images to give evidence as to whether they had taken reasonable care in examining her breast images.

This is a not uncommon situation. A defendant seeks to bolster its case by reinforcing its “independent” expert witnesses’ opinions by the views of the particular doctors concerned. I have had first hand experience of this in several cases at and approaching trial in the last two or three years.

Consistent with the New South Wales Court of Appeal’s decision, the generally accepted position is that such evidence cannot be put forward unless its substance has been disclosed an appropriate period prior to trial (as with any other expert’s opinion).  By this means the parties are given an appropriate opportunity to consider such opinion, its foundation and prepare cross examination etc.

Subject to this requirement, such expert evidence can generally be put forward, albeit (and this point was acknowledged by the New South Wales Court of Appeal), there will always be issues as to the weight to be attached to such opinion given the witnesses’ lack of impartiality.

More interestingly in a general sense, the Court of Appeal in this case made some interesting observations in relation to causation questions.


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I recently gave some thought (amongst other things, I had to, I had agreed to present a paper on the topic…),  as to what this recent Court of Appeal decision in New South Wales is going to mean in the medium term for claims in Western Australia.  It seems likely the period before the High Court gets its say, will be another 12 – 18 months.

In Gett, in brief, the New South Wales Court of Appeal decided that even when a Dr or hospital is found to have been negligent, damages could not be awarded in that State for loss of a chance of a better outcome from more appropriate medical treatment when the chances of this occurring were less than 50%.  In other words, if a Dr is negligent, and this may have worsened the outcome for the patient, damages can only be awarded if this chance of a better outcome (if the Dr or hospital had not been negligent) is > 50%.

In Gett, the chance of an improved outcome was put as 15%.  Because of the Court of Appeal’s decision, the patient was found entitled to no compensation at all, despite the fact the medical care was accepted as having been negligent (and their resulting disability was very severe).

The decision was based upon a careful and thorough analysis of past case law, from which the Court concluded that such damages should not be awarded, according to established doctrine.

Gett’s decision is contrary to the previously accepted position in New South Wales and is contrary to the position in Victoria.  It now creates uncertainty as to whether Western Australian (and the other) State Courts should follow the New South Wales or Victorian position.  

As stated, this position will ultimately be determined by the High Court of Australia’s decision on the topic (it is almost certain that it will now have to look at the issue, given the divergence between the States’ Courts).


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