Daughter wins legal battle over mother's suicide

Mike Taylor,Pa
Wednesday 10 December 2008 12:51 GMT

The daughter of a mentally-ill woman who walked out of a hospital and threw herself under a train has won the final round of her battle for the right to sue the local health trust for damages.

Anna Savage claims the hospital allowed her mother to escape and kill herself and should be held liable for violating her "right to life" under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Today, five Law Lords rejected argument by South Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust that, in the absence of gross negligence, it could not be held liable.

Lord Walker said the Trust was under a general obligation to take precautions to prevent suicides by employing competent properly-trained staff and running a safe system at the hospital.

Health authorities also had an obligation, if staff knew or ought to know that a patient presented a "real and immediate" risk of suicide, to do all they could to prevent it.

Carol Savage, 50, who had a history of mental illness, absconded from Runwell Hospital in Wickford, Essex, where she was being treated for paranoid schizophrenia as a detained patient in an open acute psychiatric ward, in July 2004.

After walking two miles to Wickford station, she jumped in front of a train.

Her daughter sought compensation, claiming that as a result of her mother's death she suffered distress, anxiety, vexation, bereavement, loss and damage.

She argued that the Trust took insufficient care to protect her mother and, as a public authority, was liable for a breach of her mother's right to life.

Her mother had made a number of attempts to leave the hospital before succeeding, it was alleged. Staff at the hospital failed properly to appreciate the "acute risk" she presented and failed to ensure adequate measures were put in place to protect her life.

In December 2006, a High Court judge blocked the claim on the basis that it would need to be proved there was "gross negligence" on the part of the hospital authorities, not merely negligence or something less.

But a year ago, the Court of Appeal held that the case could go ahead.

The court upheld argument by the daughter's lawyers that, in a case where the deceased was compulsorily detained in a mental hospital, the authority owed the same human rights obligations as were owed by the State to someone detained in prison or a prison hospital.

The Trust's appeal against that ruling was dismissed today by Lords Scott, Rodger, Walker and Neuberger and Baroness Hale.

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