A 42 year old woman from Wales whose face was permanently scarred after undergoing cosmetic surgery in Belgium is bringing a test case against the clinic in this country.
The woman, who does not want to be identified, is suing Elyzea Cosmetic Surgery Group for personal injury after having a face-lift and upper and lower eye surgery in 2005.
The case is significant because it could help to pave the way for other patients who may have received botched healthcare abroad but want to sue in the UK, where they can expect bigger payouts.
The woman says she is now embarrassed to be seen in public and claims to be left with prominent scarring around the eyes and the ears. She has also experienced numbness of the face and a "lack of symmetry" on the left side of her face. To hide the scarring she has had to grow her hair long.
The Italian surgeon who carried out the four-hour operation is understood to have 24 separate complaints against him. But the clinic, which has offices in central London and Manchester, denies any liability. It says that because the surgery was carried out in Brussels it is subject to Belgian law – which makes the individual surgeon legally responsible for any personal injury claims.
A spokeswoman for the clinic said that there was no legal duty to pay compensation to the patients, although she accepted they had moral responsibility to put things right.
The woman in the case, which has been lodged at Exeter County Court, says she consulted Elyzea after seeing their advertising literature and information published on the internet. She met the surgeon for a consultation at Elyzea's clinic in London and then agreed to have the operation performed at Elyzea's Brussels clinic.
She says there was no warning as to the risk of nerve damage or of any injury similar to that which she claims to have suffered.
Laurence Vick, the solicitor who is representing the woman, says that after her post-operative swelling had settled down she lost sensation and movement to the left side of her face.
She reported the problem to Elyzea in the UK after her return and met with the surgeon at Elyzea's London clinic in July 2005 to discuss her concerns.
An unsuccessful corrective operation was carried out at Elyzea's Brussels clinic in October 2007. According to a recent consultation with a maxillofacial surgeon, the injury to the left side of her face is going to be long-term, if not permanent, said Mr Vick.
Antonia Whally, assistant to the clinic's director, said the clinic was itself trying to trace the surgeon, who she said had not responded to emails and letters. "There's a big issue concerning Belgium and British jurisdiction and this has been pointed out to Mrs [X]," said Ms Whally.
"Under Belgium jurisdiction, the surgeon is responsible for all his [medical practice], not the clinic. That's everything from start to finish."
She said that because all the medical work was done in Brussels, the clinic followed Belgium law when dealing with complaints. But she acknowledged that the surgeon's failure to respond had caused problems for some of the patients, for which she was sorry. "The surgeon himself is accountable. We've tried to get into contact with him but he is behaving like an ostrich – which is not acceptable... We have lawyers working on the case who are actively pursuing [the surgeon]."
She added: "From a moral point of view we are providing aftercare to correct errors ... but generally patients are not reimbursed."
In 2005, Elyzea Cosmetic Surgery reported that its team of 21 plastic surgeons saw nearly 2,000 British patients every year – more than the number of Belgian clients they saw.
The clinic: A celebrity endorsement
The broadcaster Lisa I'Anson gave this endorsement for the clinic after she had breast enlargement surgery.
I did my homework to ensure I was going to be in the hands of one of the most reputable clinics, then travelled to Brussels with my niece. I wanted liposculpture and breast enlargement in order to regain a bit of what I had before childbirth.
On the day of surgery, I woke up feeling a little nervous. My surgeon was forthcoming, professional and friendly [and] inspired confidence. He took me to the bedrooms. The anaesthetist and nurse enquired about my medical history. In view of the minimal blood loss there was absolutely no risk. The next thing I remember was waking up on the operating table bandaged up. The warm and gentle nurse led me to my room. It all felt so quick and painless. Five hours after surgery I was rested, relieved and simply fantastic. I was handed a beautiful orchid while they called a taxi. Next morning ... very stiff and swollen. But it was the best decision of my life.