'I want justice for my family'

Michael Porter blames the NHS for the deaths of his wife and son. Yet five years on, he's still waiting for answers. Robert Verkaik asks, could reforms to the complaints process help others like him?
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The Independent Online

Christopher Porter, 14, was found dead on the lavatory a day after complaining of severe stomach cramps. It was particularly hard for Christopher's family to come to terms with his death because, just hours before he died, a doctor had given him the medical all-clear. Three months later, his grieving mother, Sally, still suffering from severe depression, managed to commit suicide in hospital, despite warning staff there explicitly that she intended to take her own life.

For the past five years, her husband, Michael Porter, has been fighting the legal and health systems for answers to questions about the deaths of his wife and son. To date, he has received just £11,000 in compensation for the loss of Christopher and nothing at all for his wife. And, despite spending £34,000 on three different firms of solicitors, he says he is still no nearer the truth: "My son and wife have been taken away from me, and I have been given pitiful compensation which has all been used up in legal fees," says Mr Porter. "All I want is justice for my family, for someone just to take the trouble to say that Christopher and Sally didn't have to die."

But instead of apologies, he has discovered that the doctor who was initially struck off for the negligent treatment of Christopher has been allowed to return to work. "I still live every day with the terrible events that struck my family six years ago, but the system is not even prepared to acknowledge my loss."

It was on the evening of 26 December 1997 that Christopher first complained to his father of painful stomach cramps. As the night progressed, he was left bent double in agony, vomiting violently. His father, who said he was very cold to the touch, decided to call a doctor. A few hours later, Dr Baldev Singh Benning, who was providing emergency cover at a GP's practice in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, arrived at the family home. He examined Christopher, and then left after prescribing an "inappropriate drug" and failing to take a proper account of the boy's medical history. In the morning, Mr Porter found his son dead on the lavatory. Christopher died of a complication arising from an earlier appendix operation.

Dr Benning was struck off the medical register in January 2000 after the General Medical Council found him guilty of serious professional misconduct for failing to spot life-threatening conditions in two patients. One was a 73-year-old woman, whose life-threatening condition had been misdiagnosed as a case of colic. The other was 14-year-old Christopher.

Sally Porter, 35, never got over the death of her teenage son. Soon she was complaining of a voice in her head telling her to join him. Two days after Christopher's death, she was admitted to the mental health unit of the Lister Hospital in Stevenage, where she was detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 because she was considered to be a high suicide risk who needed constant nursing observation. Over the next three months she warned staff that she intended to kill herself. On 13 March 1998, nurses reported that she had been hearing her son's voice again. On 3 April, a nurse wrote: "Sally has expressed to myself that she wants to die to be with Christopher. She says that she will not abscond to do it and has not made any set plans. She feels awful not putting Alison [her 15-year-old daughter] first, but says she can't help it." Forty minutes after speaking to the nurse about her desire to commit suicide, she was found collapsed on her floor, vomit around her mouth and a ligature mark on her neck. She was declared dead shortly afterwards.

Mr Porter still blames the National Health Service for the death of his family. He is particularly concerned that Dr Benning's name was reinstated to the general medical register in July last year.

A copy of the report of the professional conduct committee that granted Dr Benning's reinstatement reads: "With regards to character, the assessors found you to be a caring individual who has been humbled and changed by your experience. You have taken all the steps you could to rehabilitate yourself, and have clearly gained the support of the Associate Director of Postgraduate General Practice in this respect. It is clear from the assessments that your level of competence is adequate, that you have learned a great deal from your experiences and that your future performance is likely to be acceptable if restored to the register."

Mr Porter would like to see the GMC taking a tougher line and imposing much longer bans on guilty doctors - but he also accuses the legal profession of denying him justice. He has complained to the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors about two firms he blames for not pursuing his claim against the health authority that had responsibility for the Lister Hospital, asking the OSS to investigate his allegations of delay and inadequate professional service.

Even at this stage, he feels the system has let him down. After making his complaint, he heard nothing for six months. The OSS has admitted that it failed to deal with the case quickly enough, and has offered Mr Porter £200 in compensation. But, so far, it hasn't found that any of the lawyers involved in Mr Porter's case have a misconduct case to answer.

An OSS spokesman said: "We absolutely regret the delay in dealing with Mr Porter's complaint and apologise. The complaint will receive immediate attention." But where does all this leave Mr Porter? "I have been denied my right to justice. Five years after losing a loving wife and son I'm still no nearer the truth. All I ever wanted was a chance to stand up in court and accuse those who I believe are responsible."

In 2001, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee estimated that there were 850,000 "adverse events" within the health service every year, causing more than 40,000 deaths. NHS liability for medical claims has also been soaring. Last year, it was revealed that if the health service had to pay out on every claim presently outstanding, it would be left with a bill of more than £8bn.

Last week, the Government published Professor Sir Liam Donaldson's long-awaited recommendations for reform of the system for assessing compensation in medical negligence cases. His report calls for the introduction of a capped compensation scheme for claims up to £30,000. The new, streamlined process would mean patients will no longer have to spend thousands of pounds in legal fees battling through the courts to prove their case. Those who are unsatisfied by fast-track settlement, however, will still be able to sue the NHS.

These are not new ideas. They were being discussed long before the tragic deaths of Christopher and Sally Porter. But unless ministers grasp the nettle and implement them, medical negligence litigation will continue to add to the misery of those who have already suffered at the hands of the NHS.