Law Column: Lingering doubt following my mother's death

Q: My elderly mother woke one Sunday morning feeling generally unwell though she had no particular complaints. Her forehead was very warm and I felt as if she had a temperature. 

However, she was complaining that she was very cold. I immediately took her to the A&E department and we were informed that she had a very high temperature but they would need to do some investigations to try to establish the cause of the temperature before starting any treatment. 

Because it was a Sunday, the results took longer to process. In that time, her condition deteriorated. She started to shiver uncontrollably and her hands and feet were ice cold and ultimately they turned blue. My mother was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit and was put on life support. 

Her kidneys stopped working and her blood pressure was critically low. A Doctor explained that the infection had caused “blood poisoning” and that they were going to give her a combination of very strong antibiotics in the hope that it would get on top of the infection but that she was critically ill. 

Unfortunately, my mother never regained consciousness and died 12 hours following her arrival at the Hospital. I asked the Doctor if the delay in giving her the antibiotics had contributed to her death. I did not get a satisfactory response to this enquiry but sensed from his body language that something perhaps could have been done. I am left with this lingering doubt. Do you think I have a case?

A: I am so sorry for your loss. I think from the description you have given (without seeing medical records) that your late mother, in all probability, had a condition called sepsis.

This is a potentially life-threatening complication of an infection. You are correct that treatment of the condition is very time sensitive and unless treatment in the form of antibiotics and fluids are implemented promptly, the condition can progress very quickly from sepsis to severe sepsis and ultimately septic shock. 

It appears that as your late mother’s blood pressure was low, that she had developed septic shock. There are various guidelines in existence both international and domestic (HSE guidelines) and the common theme is early treatment improves chances for survival, some studies have quoted figures of 20-30%. 

In order to establish if you have a case, it would be necessary for you to instruct a Solicitor who would call for your late mother’s records.

Once the records are to hand, it would be necessary to get an independent medical expert to prepare a report on whether there was a delay in implementing treatment. You should bear in mind that strict time limits apply in these types of cases so if you want to pursue matters you should do so immediately.

*Sarah McNulty is an Apprentice Solicitor in Cantillons Solicitors of 38/39 South Mall, Cork an award-winning law firm practising in all areas of litigation.

Since the firm was founded in 1980, they have been involved in precedent making cases, amongst them Best V. Wellcome, Louise O’ Keeffe v. Ireland and most recently Costello V. HSE, a medical negligence claim in which they achieved damages of €17.8 million, the highest ever award in Irish personal injury litigation to date. Cantillons Solicitors received the award of Munster Law Firm of the Year (Over 5 Solicitors) at the AIB Irish Law Awards 2016.

*This weekly column is a readers’ service and is not intended to replace professional advice.

No individual correspondence will be entered into. Email your queries tolegalqueries@cantillons.com

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