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September 28th 2016

Medical Negligence

Law change needed to better support families following fatal medical errors and accidents

Law change needed to better support families following fatal medical errors and accidents

By Rosamund Rhodes-Kemp, Head of Clinical Negligence and Personal Injury

By Rosamund Rhodes-Kemp, Head of Clinical Negligence and Personal Injury

What is a life worth?

I’ve no doubt most people would say that is a silly question, as no monetary value can ever compensate for the loss of a loved one – no matter how young or old.

However, under current laws, the harsh reality is that when somebody dies before their time as a result of either an accident or medical negligence, a set value is placed on their life.

It is my opinion however, as both a coroner and experienced specialist clinical negligence solicitor, that these values often completely fail the families involved.

Yes, I agree entirely that no amount of compensation can ever replace a loved one, but I passionately feel that in each and every case the impact of loss should be considered on many factors, with relevant and tailored support provided, not simply set by draconian laws.

In my role as a coroner, and when supporting clients in my work with Hudgell Solicitors, I have seen so many families left shattered by the sudden loss of a loved one, and lack of support then provided, that I firmly believe the current laws in relation to fatal claims are outdated by several hundred years.

I say this because currently the statutory bereavement award paid to relatives for the loss of a wife, husband or child under 18 years of age, is just £12,980. The rules often do not see families compensated for the loss of other relatives such as aunties and grandparents, or step-parents, who are not only greatly loved and missed, but often play key roles in holding a family unit together and bringing up young children.

The only circumstances in which a family will receive more is to compensate for the financial contribution of the deceased. Therefore, if they earned a good wage, their life is considered worth more and those left behind receive a higher level of compensation.

This approach lets so many families down.  It wrongly places far too much importance on the financial impact on families, and not the overall impact their death has on the ongoing lives of their loved ones, and what support they will need to start piecing life back together.

Consider how many families would struggle to rediscover any kind of normality following the loss of a grandparent, who was not only much loved and treasured, but also was irreplaceable in terms of the support they provided, such as perhaps providing childcare which enabled mum and dad to earn a decent living themselves and go out to work.

Yes, they may not make a direct financial contribution to the family, but their loss could prove devastating, and one from which a family unit may never fully recover.

Families are no longer defined by a father who goes out to work and a mother who stays at home and looks after the children, as was perhaps the case when these laws were established.

We live in times where there are probably far more blended family units in this country which have come together in a wide range of circumstances than traditional ones. I would argue that this does not make the bonds of love or strength of dependence any weaker.

Also, consider the death of a young person – someone aged over 18 and therefore not even eligible for the statutory bereavement award, but not at a stage in their career where they are earning much money. Why should a young positive life be worth so little?

Rosamund-Rhodes-Kemp
Rosamund Rhodes-Kemp, Head of Clinical Negligence and Personal Injury, London

One of the worst scenarios, and one I sadly see regularly, is when a much wanted and loved baby dies shortly after birth. In this situation, mum and dad get a bereavement award, but precious little else because their baby had no earning capability. Seriously, what has that got to do with it, or to do with how the family recovers from this devastating life event?

Even worse is when a family suffers the trauma and heartache of a stillbirth. In this tragic situation, the quaint English legal principle means that a baby who dies must have been a “life in being” at some stage to be awarded the statutory bereavement award.

This means they must have taken a breadth and died in utero, so a stillbirth does not attract a statutory bereavement award.

This means the law is valuing the loss of a baby which dies two minutes after birth at £12,980 to the family, and nothing for a baby who dies two minutes before birth.

How on earth can this be allowed to continue. There are birth negligence claims currently settling for less than £10,000 across the country, and this is a disgrace.

To say bereavement awards generally are an insult to the bereaved families is the least of it. They are an insult to a progressive civilised society, which embraces multi culturalism, promotes and encourages modern family units and discourages discrimination in any form.

Laws around fatal compensations certainly do not reflect modern society. They are completely unjust, and often cause extra heartache for families going through some of the toughest times in their lives.

I think now is the time to campaign for a higher statutory bereavement award and increasing the capacity of claimants or family members who can claim this award.

So, back to the original question of how much is a life worth?

They’ll never be a set answer, but I am certain, and disappointed, that at present we hugely undervalue the most precious and irreplaceable thing in the world. It is time for change.

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