Section 5O of the Civil Liability Act 2002 (NSW) (CLA) introduced a modified version of the Bolam principle into the law of civil liability in NSW, extended to professionals other than medical professionals (the original subject of the principle). The effect of s 5O(1) is that a court is prevented from making a finding of negligence against a defendant professional where it can be shown that he or she acted in accordance with a practice widely accepted as being competent by peer professional opinion, unless that opinion is irrational (s 5O(2)) (s 5P excludes the application of s 5O to risk warnings in certain circumstances). Three recent cases involving s 5O provide some guidance on how the provision should be interpreted.
In Sparks v Hobson  NSWCA 29 (recently covered on this blog by Professor Roger Magnusson) the plaintiff, Mr Hobson, required corrective surgery to straighten his spine, which took place in two stages. The first stage proceeded without incident, but the second stage had to be brought ahead of schedule and done urgently. The surgery was terminated after the anesthetist, Dr Sparks, became concerned that Mr Hobson’s blood pressure and oxygen levels were dangerously low as a result him being positioned face down for the surgery. While a later surgery successfully addressed the spinal condition, Mr Hobson was rendered paraplegic as a result of the second urgent surgery. He brought an action in negligence against the hospital and members of his treating team, including Dr Sparks and the principal surgeon Dr Grey. The trial judge found that both doctors had been negligent in not terminating the surgery 13 minutes sooner than they did, and that s 5O could not be made out. The defendants appealed to the NSW Court of Appeal.
Dr Grey was successful in establishing that he had not been negligent, but a majority of the Court of Appeal found that Dr Sparks had been negligent in failing to terminate the surgery sooner. Justice McFarlan and Justice Simpson accepted that they were bound by the Court of Appeal’s reasoning in McKenna v Hunter & New England Local Health District  NSWCA 476. Here, the court held that in order for s 5O to be established, a medical practitioner must demonstrate that what he or she did conformed with a practice that was in existence at the time the medical service was provided. Then, he or she must establish that that practice was widely (although not necessarily universally) accepted by peer professional opinion as competent professional practice.
Justice Basten rejected the requirement that there be “a practice” (described as a “regular course of conduct adopted in particular circumstances”), on the basis that the Court of Appeal’s decision in McKenna was overturned on appeal to the High Court and its reasoning was no longer binding. However, His Honour agreed with Justice McFarlan (but on different grounds) that Dr Grey’s evidence was insufficient to establish s 5O.
The majority’s judgment in Sparks v Hobson narrows the scope of the operation of s 5O, meaning that it will not be available in circumstances where the defendant cannot show that he or she followed a discrete, established “practice”. This includes in unusual factual situations or potentially, situations involving new medical techniques or procedures. The High Court recently denied an application for leave to appeal from the Court of Appeal’s decision.
Under s 5O(2) peer professional opinion cannot be relied upon for the purposes of s 5O(1) if the court considers that the opinion is “irrational”. The NSW Court of Appeal considered the meaning of this term in South Western Sydney Local Health District v Gould  NSWCA 69. The plaintiff, a young boy, slipped and fell on wet concrete and injured his thumb. He was administered antibiotics at Campbelltown Hospital and a different antibiotic at Liverpool Hospital, which he was transferred to in the evening on the day of the incident. However, gangrene developed in his thumb after he was discharged and it was amputated. The plaintiff successfully brought a claim in negligence against the health district responsible for Liverpool Hospital. The trial judge found that the treating team at Liverpool Hospital had been negligent in failing to give the plaintiff an additional course of a different antibiotic, and that the opinion of the defendant’s two expert witnesses (that the additional course of antibiotics was not required) was irrational under s 5O(2).
On appeal to the NSW Court of Appeal, Justice Leeming (with whom Meaghar J agreed) made a series of comments on s 5O after considering the history, objective and statutory context of the provision. Justice Leeming concluded that ():
Text, context and purpose [of s 5O] all support the conclusion that it is a seriously pejorative and exceptional thing to find that a professional person has expressed an opinion that is ‘irrational’ and even more exceptional if the opinion be widely held. To consider a body of opinion to be ‘irrational’ is a stronger conclusion than merely disagreeing with it, or preferring a competing body of peer professional opinion.
Justice Leeming held that the trial judge had erred by conflating the process of resolving a conflict between competing expert opinions “with the entirely different process required by s 5O(2) of determining whether an opinion is ‘irrational’” (). It was also procedurally unfair for the trial judge to find the evidence of the defendant’s witnesses irrational when this point had not been argued at trial or raised with either party. Further, the evidence of the defendant’s witnesses was sufficient to establish s 5O(1) and the appeal was allowed.
Does s 5O operate as a defence?
Based on the decision in Dobler v Halveson (2007) 70 NSWLR 151, s 5O has commonly been interpreted as a defence, meaning that the plaintiff must establish a breach of the duty of care for the purposes of s 5B of the CLA (as well as the other elements of negligence), following which the defendant must raise evidence that his or her conduct accorded with competent professional practice for the purposes of s 5O.
In Gould, Justice Leeming commented that the proper interpretation of Dobler was that if the defendant could establish the preconditions in s 5O, then it would act to set the standard of care. If the preconditions in s 5O could not be established then ss 5B and 5C of the CLA would apply. However, “[t]here is no occasion to compare the s 5O standard with that which would be considered in the application of s 5B in a case where the preconditions of s 5O have been made out” (). Justice Leeming noted that this interpretation of s 5O was also suggested by Justice Basten and Justice Simpson in Sparks v Hobson. In that case, Justice Basten commented that ():
…once s 5O is invoked, arguably the general exercise required by s 5B becomes otiose. There can only be one standard against which to judge the conduct of a professional defendant, although that standard may depend upon the resolution of conflicting evidence called by the plaintiff and the defendant. It is only if one takes the plaintiff’s evidence in isolation that a two-stage process, involving the assessment of the plaintiff’s claim followed by assessment of an affirmative defence, will arise. However, in a practical sense, that is not how the dispute should be determined. Rather, a judgment will be given based on all of the evidence. Nor is the exercise helpfully clarified by speaking of shifting burdens of proof. The question for the trial judge is ultimately whether the plaintiff has established that the conduct of the defendant failed to comply with the relevant standard of care.
According to Justice Basten, s 5O will be engaged where there is evidence of a widely accepted professional practice supporting the defendant’s conduct, but that evidence, when available, will set the relevant standard: “there cannot be two legally supportable standards operating in the one case” (). So while the defendant may need to establish the elements of s 5O, it is the starting point for determining the standard of care owed by the defendant and whether the defendant fell below the standard of care – not a defence that is considered after breach has been established for the purposes of s 5B of the CLA.
The word “professional” is not defined in s 5O. It clearly extends to medical professions, but it is unclear which other professions it might include. The meaning of the word “profession” was considered in Zhang v Hardas (No 2)  NSWSC 432. In this case, Ms Zhang sued Mr Hardas, a chiropractor, alleging that he had been negligent in treating her over 12 consultations between February and September 2007, causing her to develop a depressive disorder. The case concerned Mr Hardas use of an “activator” device on Ms Zhang’s spine, which delivered a significant force to the spine for the purpose of moving bones in the spine. Ms Zhang alleged that the device had been applied hundreds of times to her cervical spine during each of the consultations with Mr Hardas.
Justice Leeming in the NSW Supreme Court rejected this argument, with the evidence supporting Mr Hardas’ position that the device had been used no more than a dozen times during each session with Ms Zhang. Further, it was not reasonably foreseeable that a person of normal fortitude might suffer a recognized psychiatric injury as a result of undergoing treatment with the activator device when it was used no more than a dozen times on each occasion. However, Justice Leeming considered whether s 5O would apply, if His Honour was incorrect on the point of whether the plaintiff owed the defendant a duty of care, as argued by the defendant.
Justice Leeming considered whether Mr Hardas, as a chiropractor, could be said to be “practicing a profession”. After reviewing the history of professionalization, Justice Leeming stated that he preferred the view “that the essential nature of practising a profession is closely linked to a partial monopoly, justified by education and public benefit, and involving a measure of altruism distinct from the drive for profit” (). However, Justice Leeming did not express a conclusive view of the meaning of the word “profession” for the purposes of s 5O, but instead confined his decision to the narrower question of whether chiropractors practiced a profession.
Justice Leeming noted that at the time the incident occurred, chiropractors were regulated under a series of acts, including the Chiropractors Act 2001 (NSW), the Health Care Complaints Act 1993 (NSW) and the Public Health Act 1991 (NSW). The Chiropractors Act established a Registration Board that developed a code of professional conduct for chiropractors and also included definitions of “professional misconduct” and “unsatisfactory professional conduct.” Public complaints could be made to the board, and the Act also established a Chiropractors Tribunal that dealt with complaints that could involve suspending or cancelling a chiropractor’s registration. The Public Health Act provided that a person could not engage in spinal manipulation unless they were a registered chiropractor.
Justice Leeming concluded that s 5O “was enacted in a context in which (a) it was plain that the conventional medical profession was squarely within the mischief to which it was directed and (b) legislation treated chiropractors in ways which were similar to medical practitioners”, including through the creation of a tribunal dealing with instances of professional misconduct, combined with statutory concepts of professional misconduct and unsatisfactory professional conduct ().
The Chiropractors Act 2001 also consistently treated chiropractors as professionals and “there is every reason for the defined term “professional” in s 5O to extend to occupations regarded by the same Legislature as professional” (). Accordingly, chiropractors could be regarded as practising a profession for the purposes of the provision. Further, “the notion of a licensed monopoly of people who practice spinal manipulation, with educational qualifications and mechanisms for admitting and excluding those who meet or fail to meet those standards, also appears to apply” ().
Mr Hardas could establish that he had acted in a manner that was widely accepted in Australia as competent professional practice as he had established that the “activator technique” was widely accepted in Australia, and the fact that other chiropractors used different methods did not prevent him from establishing that he had followed competent professional practice (s 5O(3)). Justice Leeming left to one side the issue of whether s 5O required the defendant to establish that he or she had followed “a practice” but noted that Mr Hardas’ conduct would have met this requirement if necessary.