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Why Barnett v Chelsea and Kensington Hospital Management Committee is important

Barnett demonstrates that the defendant must cause the loss, and it is for the claimant to show this. In Barnett, the claim was dismissed because, even though the doctor was negligent, on the balance of probability the doctor’s failure to take reasonable care had not caused the defendant’s death.

Facts

The claimant, Barnett (deceased), died of arsenical poisoning. Him and two other colleagues who were on a night shift began vomiting after drinking some tea. They attended the hospital, but were sent home by the nurse (having spoken to the doctor) and told to call out their own doctors. This was the second time they had been to the hospital that evening and the nurse thought they were vomiting because of alcohol they had been drinking earlier in the evening.

They returned to their workplace, where Barnett’s condition deteriorated. The doctor their saw to him and called an ambulance, but Barnett died before he reached the hospital.

Claim

Barnett’s widow brought a claim in the tort of negligence as adminastrix of Barnett’s estate. They argued that the hospital was negligent in not identifying that Barnett had been poisoned, and the doctor should therefore have seen to him when they attended the hospital.

The hospital denied they were negligent, and in any event said they did not cause his death.

Held

The claim was dismissed. Whilst the hospital were negligent, this did not cause the deceased’s death so no action in the tort of negligence was made out.

Reasoning

Neild J made clear that failing to attend Barnett was not an ‘excusable error’, but negligence. The doctor should have seen to and examined the deceased. The doctor therefore breached his duty to take reasonable care.

The claimants argued that, negligence shown, the burden of proof fell on the defendants to show that their failure to take reasonable care did not cause the harm. Neil J rejected this argument, concluding the onus of proving causation remained on the claimant. The claimant therefor had to show, on the balance of probability, that the defendant caused the loss.

Neild J held that the claimants had failed to discharge this burden. On the evidence, it was highly unlikely that the doctor would have identified Barnett’s condition as arsenical poisoning, and therefore Barnett would not have received the treatment he needed to survive. Even then, Barnett’s chances of survival were very slim.

In these circumstances, Neild J could not say that the defendant caused Barnett’s death. Therefore, Barnett’s claim was dismissed.

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