£5m payout likely for errors made at birth in 1963

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The Independent Online

The parents of a man who suffered severe brain damage 38 years ago are to receive up to £5m compensation today in what lawyers believe is the longest-running case of its kind.

Richard Coman, who has a mental age of three, has needed 24-hour-a-day care ever since doctors' negligence left him with brain damage at birth. His parents, Joan and Sidney, both in their seventies, only realised they could sue the former East Norfolk Health Authority in 1996 after they heard about a similar case.

Today a High Court judge will decide the amount of damages the couple should be awarded to help them look after their son, who is their only child. The health authority has admitted liability but the National Health Service disputes the amount of compensation the Comans are claiming.

Lawyers believe the case is the longest-running medical negligence claim arising out of a maternity blunder.

Joan Coman was first admitted to the West Norwich Hospital in February 1963 when Richard's birth was overdue. Doctors twice attempted to induce the birth but without success. Eventually Mrs Coman was transferred to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, where the baby was delivered by Caesarean section. By then Richard was 22 days overdue and a brain scan showed his injuries were caused during the later stages of this delay, when he suffered a constriction to his breathing for a prolonged period of a few hours.

For many years the Comans did not realise the extent of his brain injuries.

Since bringing the case they have been awarded interim payments of £550,000 pending the full settlement after the health authority admitted 75 per cent liability. In the past two years Richard has had extensive medical tests to assess the full extent of his disabilities.

Yesterday Mrs Coman said: "We brought this action because we wanted to ensure a secure and stable future for Richard and his extensive care needs. We can now make plans for Richard's care with confidence." The Comans' solicitor, Simon John, said one of the difficulties the family faced had been to find a suitable house for Richard.

"One of Richard's problems is that he has no road sense, in fact no awareness of danger whatever. So it's been crucial to find a house where his parents can know he will be safe, and we've eventually found somewhere suitable near Norwich."

Mr John, of the law firm Cunningham John, based in Thetford, said Richard would need round-the-clock, specialist care for the rest of his life.

He added: "Richard's parents have worked lovingly and heroically for 38 years to cope with the enormous burden of looking after him almost unaided, and they deserve the utmost credit and admiration for what they have done for him."

The Coman case is the latest in a series of claims for medical negligence at births dating back decades, which were pursued after the courts ruled that the customary legal time bars should not be applied. In November last year Dawn Wicks from Cambridge was awarded £2.5m for injuries at birth 28 years ago.

Mr John, who also advised on the Wicks case, added: "It's ironic that Richard's case was delayed, because in the 1960s lawyers were not sufficiently specialist to have addressed cases like this in the kind of depth they need, and it wouldn't have been possible to prove that Richard's injuries were caused at his birth."