Wrong chemotherapy drug led to death

Mr G was suffering from cancer. As part of the treatment he had an orchidectomy (an operation to remove his testicle). Unfortunately a subsequent biopsy revealed that the cancer had spread (metastic teratoma) for which the recommended treatment was chemotherapy using the drug Bleomycin. Sadly, within eight months of starting the treatment, Mr G died of Bleomycin Lung Toxicity.

Grounds for a medical negligence claim

Mr G had been treated at two NHS hospitals, neither of which had explained to Mr G or his wife that Bleomycin was a high risk drug with potentially severe side effects, one of which is Bleomycin Lung Toxicity, an uncommon but known respiratory complication of the drug. After the death of Mr G, his widow asked us to represent her in a claim for medical negligence against the hospital which treated her husband. Her claim had two grounds: first, the oncologist had failed to discuss other forms of available chemotherapy treatment and the risks associated with Bleomycin treatment specific to Mr G which meant his consent to be treated with Bleomycin was essentially invalid; and second, it was wholly wrong to treat Mr G with the drug in any event given his particular condition and age.

Expert witness queried Bleomycin use

The hospital maintained throughout the case that Bleomycin was an appropriate drug with which to treat Mr G’s cancer and that he had properly consented to treatment. However, the expert witness we appointed disagreed, stating that Bleomycin should never have been used in this case and the fact that Mr G was not given details of the risks of the treatment and then offered alternative treatments was a breach of the duty of care that all health professionals owe their patients.

Hospital was reluctant to settle the case

It was clear throughout the case that the expert witnesses did not support the hospital’s claim that Mr G was given all the information he needed regarding the risks of Bleomycin. Although the prospective compensation was relatively low, the hospital kept refusing to propose a settlement, despite being given every opportunity to do so, including delaying the proceedings by three months to enable it to come up with a suitable offer.  When it did make an offer, the terms it suggested were woefully inadequate and we refused it. This reluctance to settle meant that the case was listed for trial which would have incurred even greater legal costs than those already committed. Finally, a week before trial, the hospital finally made an offer which our client accepted.

Lessons learnt

It was very clear that the standard of care that Mr G received was well below what should have been expected from a medical professional. Although the value of the case was not high, the refusal of the hospital to recognise that it was at fault meant that the legal costs dwarfed the final settlement. Medical negligence cases are never brought on a whim; in order to be successful a claim has to clear a number of clearly defined hurdles which helps to weed out those claims that do not have any merit. The expert witness we appointed was absolutely clear that the hospital had breached its duty of care by recommending a course of potentially dangerous treatment without telling Mr G of the risks, and failing to suggest other, more appropriate forms of treatment. Fortunately, we were able to agree a settlement for Mr G’s widow which, although will never compensate for her loss, has given her a little more financial security and showed the fortitude of our client to continue with her claim in the face of the defendant’s persistent denial.

About the author

Jeanette Whyman Partner

Jeanette is head of the medical negligence team. Having worked previously for Hospital Trusts, Jeanette has extensive knowledge of hospital practices and procedures. This means that she is able to assess a case speedily and to anticipate the other parties' position – this enables her to put forward the best possible case on behalf of her client.