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Review Your SQE 1 Practice Records

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Thomas arrived at a hospital complaining of vomiting and stomach cramps. The duty nurse telephoned Dr. Smith, who was himself unwell, and instructed the nurse to send Thomas home and to call his own GP. Thomas followed the instructions but died a few hours later from what was later found to be arsenic poisoning, which would have killed him in any event.

How would you advise Thomas' widow regarding a negligence claim against the hospital?

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According to established law, the hospital was not liable; even if the doctor had examined Thomas and treated him with proper care, he would still have died from the poisoning. This principle is derived from Barnett v Chelsea and Kensington Hospital Management Committee [1968] 1 All ER 1068, where it was held that the hospital was not liable for the death of a patient who would have died regardless of the treatment due to the advanced stage of poisoning. The key issue is causation: there must be a direct link between the negligence and the harm suffered. In this case, the outcome would have been the same even with proper care. 

Key Point: The case of Barnett v Chelsea and Kensington Hospital illustrates the importance of causation in negligence claims. Even if there is a breach of duty, the claimant must prove that the breach directly caused the harm. If the harm would have occurred regardless of the breach, the claim will fail.

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