Fluid deaths: Trusts apologise to families of three more children

Inquiry families discuss today's hearing. Left to right: Ray & Marie Ferguson, Jennifer & Alan Roberts

Inquiry families discuss today's hearing. Left to right: Ray & Marie Ferguson, Jennifer & Alan Roberts

By Niall McCracken

HEALTH trust lawyers have this morning apologised to the families of three of the children whose deaths are being investigated by the child fluid death inquiry, going back almost 18 years.

Lawyers issued a “full and frank admission of liability” on behalf of the Belfast trust in relation to the death of Claire Roberts (9) and Adam Strain (4).

In the case of 15-year-old Conor Mitchell, the inquiry heard that a letter had been sent today by the HSC’s Directorate of Legal Services (DLS) on behalf of the Southern health trust, to his family. It apologised to the Mitchell family and acknowledged liability for failures and shortcomings in the implementation of Hyponatraemia Guidelines available at the time.

However, the letter stated that in Conor’s this case there was nothing to indicate that the failure to comply with the guidelines resulted in his death.

Claire died in 1996 at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children but the true cause of her death only came to light after her parents saw a documentary about other fluid deaths in 2005, prompting them to press for more answers.

Claire’s father, Alan, said: We welcome the admission of liability and the apology for failures by the doctors in Claire’s clinical care.

“It has taken 17 years to get to this point and it’s only because of this inquiry. Up until then the Trust and doctors had a defensive approach.

“What they have put us through is emotional turmoil that takes over your life.”

Once the inquiry chair, Mr Justice O’Hara, had delivered his report, Mr Roberts said, his family would be seeking a new inquest into their daughter’s death.

Today’s announcements come just two months after the Western Trust admitted liability for the death of nine-year-old Raychel Ferguson 12 years ago.

It marks the first time the trust has publicly admitted liability in the case of four-year-old Adam Strain, who died during a kidney transplant in November 1995. A previous settlement by the Belfast Trust contained with no admission of liability and Adam’s mother was gagged from speaking about her son’s death with a confidentiality clause. The confidentiality clause was subsequently waived by the trust during the course of the inquiry.

For more background information on the issues being examined by the Hyponatraemia Inquiry please click here.

Speaking at today’s hearing Gerry McAlinden QC, instructed by the DLS, said the trusts would be confirming their position in a series of letters to the families:

Gerry McAlinden QC: I can indicate at this stage that the Belfast Trust accept that there were shortcomings in the fluid management in the case of Adam Strain. It is public record that proceedings were previously initiated by the relatives of Adam Strain in relation to his death. That claim was settled in terms endorsed, with no admission of liability and a confidentiality clause. The confidentiality clause was subsequently waived by the trust. The trust will be writing to the family and that response will contain a full admission of liability and apology an expression of sympathy.

Referring to correspondence intended for the Family of Claire Roberts Mr McAlinden said:

Gerry McAlinden QC: That response contains a full and frank admission of liability on behalf of the Belfast Trust in relation to the death of Claire Roberts and in addition to the full and frank admission of liability at this stage of behalf of the trust I would wish to offer an apology, a sincere apology for the family on behalf of the trust for the shortcomings in the management of Claire Roberts and on behalf of the trust I would like to express my sincere sympathy to the family of Claire Roberts.

Meanwhile Michael Stitt QC, also instructed by DLS, outlined the contents of a letter sent by the Southern Trust to the family of Conor:

Mr Stitt: The Southern Health and Social Care Trust, which includes the legacy Craigavon Area Hospital Trust, accepts (department) guidelines from 2002 on the prevention of hyponatraemia in children were applicable to Conor Mitchell. The trust accepts that for various reasons, which will be the subject of the inquiry, the directions of the Chief Medical Officer as contained in these guidelines and accompanying correspondence were not properly implemented in the medical assessment unit or the emergency department of Craigavon area hospital at this time and that staff in those areas were not made aware of or trained in the implementation of these guidelines.

Although there is nothing to indicate the failure to comply with the guidelines resulted in Conor’s death, the trust fully acknowledges its liability for the failures and shortcomings that occurred in the implementation of the guidelines, both generally and especially in Conor’s care. The Trust apologises to Conor’s family for the failings referred to above and again offers our sincere sympathies to Conor’s family.

Following the evidence, Mr Justice O’Hara adjourned the hearing and said that discussions would have to continue to assess what impact this would have on what witnesses would now be required to give evidence in Conor Mitchell’s case.

In concluding he acknowledged the significance of the statements:

Mr Justice John O’Hara: I hope these statements to the families are seen by them as helping their position, the families have repeatedly said that what they’ve done and what they’ve perused has been in memory of their children, and I hope that they feel today that there is some added justification for what they’ve done.