Girl wins record pounds 3.9m damages

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The Independent Online
A TEENAGER has won a record pounds 3.9m settlement in the High Court after routine surgery to remove a birthmark left her severely brain damaged.

Helen Edwards was just five when she underwent cosmetic surgery at the private Hope Nursing Home in Cambridgeshire to remove a strawberry birthmark on her forehead. But she suffered complications from the anaesthetic, which led to cardiac arrest and permanent brain damage.

Now 17, she was left blind and unable to crawl, feed or talk. But after years of help from her parents, Roger and Brenda, and volunteers from their village of Elmsett, near Hadleigh in Suffolk, she can see again and has recovered some movement.

Daniel Brennan QC, representing the family, told Mr Justice McKinnon that the pounds 3.9m settlement was "an enormous amount of money - the largest amount awarded against any individual doctor so far".

The previous highest award, pounds 3,281,199 was made last month to Sam Mansell, who had been severely disabled during a Caesarean section in 1987.

Mr Brennan said Helen's circumstances were "truly tragic". She was a normal five-year-old who went to her local hospital to have a small birthmark removed in what should have been a minor operation.

Mr Brennan told the judge that Helen's parents were never prepared to accept that her future "was very bleak indeed". He said they engaged volunteers and professional help in a training programme that lasted five years.

"The result was that she became aware and responsive and happier than at any time in the past."

Although doctors said there was no hope, her sight gradually returned and she was able to mutter the words "mum" and "more" by the age of 10.

The consultant anaesthetist, Dr Thomas Ogg, admitted liability in 1994, but it has taken years for the family to be awarded the amount of money needed to provide Helen's care regime.

Mr Edwards said after the hearing: "This legal battle has taken a quarter of our lives, so we are very thankful that it is over at last."

He said they had been encouraged by experts that "Helen deserves a quality of life, not just nursing or institutional care".

Mr Edwards said pounds 3.9m "will seem like a lot of money to most people, but Helen must pay others to facilitate her every activity, 24 hours a day".

He added: "Every penny of the award is needed to provide the quality of life which Helen deserves. As her parents, we will continue to work hard to ensure the money lasts to provide as happy and fulfilling a life for her as possible.

"The settlement is welcome for the security it brings to Helen's future, but the fact is that we would rather have our daughter back as she was, rather than all the money in the world."

The family's solicitor, Sandra Patton, said the settlement was so large because Helen's disabilities were permanent and so severe. The judge approved a payment from the settlement of pounds 150,000 to the parents, who had sacrificed their careers to devote their time to their daughter. Mr Edwards gave up his job as a BT research technician and his wife her accountancy career.

Stephen Miller QC, representing Dr Ogg, said: "I would not like it thought that this award will become a benchmark for damages of this type. This is a unique case and that is why the damages are so great."

The Big Payouts

LITIGATION SOAKS up enough money to build at least four new hospitals every year and last year the NHS paid pounds 235m in court settlements.

Helen Edwards' pounds 3.9m settlement is now the highest. The previous highest was pounds 3,281,199 made to Sam Mansell last month. He suffers from cerebral palsy after being starved of oxygen during delivery in 1987 and requires round-the-clock attention. Other major awards have included:

Lesley Wildsmith suffered cerebral palsy at birth in 1974 because doctors failed to realise her mother was carrying twins. She is expected to be awarded up to pounds 2m next year after the health authority admitted negligence.

Surviving twin Warren Dyer was awarded pounds 1.85m this June after being starved of oxygen at birth. His brother was stillborn during the delivery in 1982.

Christopher Firmin, 12, was awarded pounds 2.35m against the Ministry of Defence in July after being starved of oxygen at the British Military Hospital in Hanover in 1986. He has cerebral palsy and needs 24-hour care.

Peter Pearse won pounds 2,325,000 damages after the unnecessary use of forceps during his birth. Despite being confined to a wheelchair and needing constant care, he gained a degree in psychology at Nottingham University in 1993.

Student Catherine Roberts won a pounds 100,000 out-of-court settlement after doctors allowed her to go without food for more than two months because they believed she was going to die after suffering a brain haemorrhage.