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Why Roe v Minister of Health is important

In Roe v Minister of Health, the Court of Appeal confirmed that the reasonable person only has knowledge as is reasonable at the time of the act.

Facts

The claimants were both given a spinal anaesthetic for minor operations in October 1947. As a result of the anaesthetic, both claimants were paralysed from the waist down.

There was no defect in the anaesthetic, or how it was administered. The paralysis was caused by a substance used to disinfect the needles which got into the substance through tiny cracks in the glass. These ‘invisible cracks’ were undetectable during the ordinary examination which took place in an operating theatre.

Claim

The claimants brought an action for damages in the tort of negligence. They argued that the defendant was liable because the doctor failed to take reasonable care in stopping this other substance entering their spines, which caused the paralysis.

The claimants highlighted that in other hospitals a dye was used to tint the anaesthetic where another substance has got into the liquid. They argued that using this technique would have avoided their paralysis.

Issue

Whether the defendant was negligent (vicariously).

Held

The Court held for the defendant. The Court held that the doctor had taken reasonable care, being the standard of care expected from the reasonable person.

Reasoning

Two main reasons were given why the doctor had not been negligent:

  1. The doctor was not aware, nor could be aware, that there were cracks in the glass. These cracks could not be spotted on a visual or physical examination of the glass.
  2. The doctor inspected the glass in the proper way expected of him at the time of the incident.

In the words of Denning LJ:

It is so easy to be wise after the event and to condemn as negligence that which was only a misadventure. We ought always to be on our guard against it, especially in cases against hospitals and doctors. Medical science has conferred great benefits on mankind but these benefits are attended by considerable risks. … Doctors, like the rest of us, have to learn by experience; and experience often teaches in a hard way. Something goes wrong and shows up a weakness, and then it is put right. That is just what happened here. Dr Graham sought to escape the danger of infection by disinfecting the ampoule. In escaping that known danger he unfortunately ran into another danger. He did not know that there could be undetectable cracks, but it was not negligent for him not to know it at that time. We must not look at the 1947 accident with 1954 spectacles. The Judge acquitted Dr Graham of negligence and we should uphold his decision.

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