Sparks v Hobson must go to the High Court: here’s why

In NSW, Section 5O of the Civil Liability Act provides a defence to a doctor or health professional who is defending a negligence claim.

Under s 5O, a person will not be liable “if it is established that the professional acted in a manner that (at the time the service was provided) was widely accepted in Australia by peer professional opinion as competent professional practice”.

S 5O is often regarded as re-introducing a version of the Bolam test, since the standard of care required of a professional person is ultimately determined by the practices of his or her peers.

In Dobler v Halverson, the NSW Court of appeal clarified how s 5O operates.  It pointed out that in a medical negligence case, both parties will call expert evidence to attempt to demonstrate that what the defendant did fell short of – or did not fall short of – acceptable professional practice [59].

According to the Court, the effect of s 5O is that if the court finds the doctor’s conduct was in accordance with “professional practice regarded as acceptable by some” in the profession, then (subject to the court considering professional opinion to be irrational), that professional practice will set the standard of care and the plaintiff patient will therefore fail: [59].

 

Sparks v Hobson; Gray v Hobson

Understanding about the scope of s 5O has been thrown into disarray by the NSW Court of Appeal in Sparks v Hobson; Gray v Hobson [2018] NSWCA 29 (1 March 2018).

The facts are complex.  Mr Hobson suffered from Noonan Syndrome, a genetic disorder that resulted in serious curvature of his spine and a reduced chest cavity that prevented his left lung from filling with air.  This caused breathlessness and restrictive airways disease.  He underwent surgery that was intended to strength his spine and relieve pressure on the chest cavity.

The first stage of the operation was uneventful; however, the second stage was brought forward because Mr Hobson was in intensive care due to pneumonia in his left lung and the obstruction of his left airway.  The second stage of the operation required Mr Hobson to lie face down on the operating table, while screws were placed in his spine.

The position of Mr Hobson during the operation, and the placing of the screws, created further pressure on the chest wall, further restricting his breathing.

Mr Hobson was regarded by the expert witnesses as presenting a “very unusual and difficult anaesthetic challenge due to the significant compression of his left main bronchus by his spine and due to the requirement for prone positioning during surgery” [296]

The operation began at 7pm on 17 November 2009.  The level of carbon dioxide in Mr Hobson’s blood rose during the surgery, and at 9.30pm, Dr Sparks administered a drug called vecuronium to try to improve ventilation.  It led to no improvement; also, vecuronium was a muscle relaxant, and it meant that spinal cord monitoring was thereafter ineffective.  From that point onwards, Dr Sparks could only be guided by the oxygen and blood pressure readings “as his criteria for stopping the operation” [177].

Dr Sparks described Mr Hobson’s high blood carbon dioxide level, at 8.30 to 8.35pm as “very serious”.  He had what the clinicians called “profound respiratory and metabolic acidosis”.  At 8.50, Dr Sparks made two telephone calls to two colleagues (Dr Barratt, an anaesthetist, and Dr Marshman, a cardiothoracic surgeon), but they were unable to make any further suggestions about how to reduce the risk of cardiovascular failure.

At around 9.25pm, Mr Hobson’s blood pressure and oxygen levels dropped dramatically, and at Dr Spark’s request, the wound was closed rapidly and the operation terminated.

One of the issues in dispute was whether Dr Sparks should have terminated the operation at a time earlier than he did.  There was evidence that due to respiratory collapse around 9.30pm, precipitated by obstruction of circulation (causing lack of oxygen), irreparable damage was done to Mr Hobson’s spinal cord, leaving him a paraplegic.

Although the surgery was later completed successfully, Mr Hobson’s paraplegia remained.

The trial judge found against both Dr Sparks, and the principal surgeon, Dr Gray.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal unanimously allowed Dr Gray’s appeal.  However, Dr Sparks’ liability was upheld by a majority of 2:1.

The Court of Appeal’s decision in Sparks v Hobson raises a number of issues relating to the interpretation of provisions in the Civil Liability Act.

These include the relationship between s 5O and s 5B, and the meaning of s5I.

This post focuses specifically on the court’s interpretation of the defence in s 5O.

The uncertainty introduced by the irreconcilable judgments of the Court of Appeal in Sparks v Hobson is so significant that it will be a great shame if leave to appeal to the High Court is not granted.

 

Irreconcilable judgments

In McKenna v Hunter & New England Local Health District [2013] NSWCA 476, Macfarlan JA pointed out that the defence in s 5O is premised on the defendant doctor demonstrating that they conformed with “a practice that was in existence at the time the medical service was provided” and secondly, that the “practice was widely although not necessarily universally accepted by peer professional opinion as competent professional practice”: [160].

This emphasis on the existence of a “practice” – in the sense of a pattern of response by medical practitioners to a clinical scenario, is in contradistinction to there simply being a widespread view among peers that what the defendant did in the circumstances of the case constituted “competent professional practice”.

The significance of the need for a “practice”, as suggested by Macfarlan JA, is that in an unusual case, there may be no relevant practice in existence that the defendant doctor can identify and appeal to for the purposes of a defence.

 

Basten JA

In Sparks v Hobson, Basten JA rejected the suggestion in McKenna that the defence in s 5O only applies where the defendant can identify “a regular course of conduct adopted in particular circumstances” [31].

McKenna was overturned by the High Court, so Basten JA thought that the reasoning of the majority of the Court of Appeal, on the interpretation of s 5O, was no longer binding: [35]

He said: “there is no grammatical or semantic difficulty in describing an argument run by counsel in a novel case as demonstrating competent or incompetent professional practice” [31].

In a novel case, Basten JA thought that a defendant may invoke the defence in s 5O “by reference to how an assessment of the circumstances (which may be unique) would be undertaken by a knowledgeable and experienced practitioner” [31].

Although Basten JA did not think a defendant needed to establish they acted in accordance with a “practice” (understood in the sense of an established course of conduct followed in the circumstances of the case), he nevertheless concluded that Dr sparks had failed to establish a standard, widely accepted in Australia, of competent professional practice, for the purposes of availing himself of the s 5O defence.

 

Macfarlan JA

In Sparks v Hobson, Macfarlan JA reiterated his approach in McKenna.  He said: “It is not enough that experts called to give evidence consider that the conduct was reasonable and that it would have been so regarded by other professionals if they had been asked about it at the time of the conduct” [211].

In this case, the surgery was highly unusual.  Although the expert witnesses all agreed Dr Sparks acted reasonably in the actions he took during the operation, and although they considered professional peers would likely have taken the same view, the experts and the defendant did not point to an established practice that was followed by Dr Sparks in the circumstances of the case [221].

In Macfarlan JA’s analysis, this was fatal to Dr Sparks’ defence: see [223].

 

Simpson JA

The third justice in the NSW Court of Appeal was Simpson JA, who considered that she was bound to accept the construction of s 5O adopted in the McKenna case.

But for the constraint of precedent, Simpson JA would not have adopted the approach of Macfarlan JA.

She said: “As construed in McKenna, s 5O can apply only in limited circumstances, where the defendant can, or seeks to, identify a discrete practice to which he or she conformed.  It necessarily excludes unusual factual circumstances, such as occurred in McKenna, and such as occurred in the present case.  It does not appear to me that s 5O was intended to have such limited application.  However, as I have said, I consider myself constrained to follow and apply that decision” [336].

In Justice Simpson’s view, Dr Sparks failed to establish a defence based on s 5O because he could not identify a “practice” to which he conformed in the highly challenging and unusual circumstances of the case.  This, “notwithstanding that the overwhelming medical evidence was that his conduct was in accordance with what was widely accepted in Australia as competent professional practice’” [346].

Despite this, Simpson JA found in favour of Dr Sparks because she thought that in the circumstances of the case, s 5I applied.

S 5I provides that a person is not liable for the materialisation of an inherent risk that cannot be avoided by the exercise of reasonable care and skill.

In her Honour’s view, once it was found that Mr Hobson’s deteriorating condition warranted the surgery “as emergency surgery”, and that the surgery carried the risk of paraplegia, s 5I applied to excuse Dr Hobson from liability.

In addition, Simpson JA concluded that the evidence did not establish that the failure by Dr Sparks to terminate the operation before 9.30pm amounted to a departure from the standard of reasonable care and skill required of a specialist anaesthetist [350], given that Mr Hobson “needed urgent surgery to ensure his survival”: [352].

 

The future of the s 5O defence

As things stand, the judgments of Justices Macfarlan and Simpson in Sparks v Hobson give majority support to an interpretation of s 5O that limits its scope as a defence for doctors in medical negligence proceedings.

The issue at stake goes to the heart of what the defence requires courts to do.

In the view of Justice Simpson, the task of the court when considering the defence in s 5O is not to choose between competing views but to determine whether as a factual matter, the acts and/or omissions of the defendant that give rise to allegations of breach of duty of care “had the acceptance of peer opinion, even if other peer opinion was different”: [345].

This view is consistent with the assumption that s 5O was intended to introduce a version of the Bolam principle into New South Wales law, thereby ensuring that medical practices, rather than a court, ultimately define the standard of care by which a doctor’s conduct will be judged.

If the view of Justice Macfarlan is followed, by contrast, the role of the court would focus on determining whether a relevant “practice” exists on which a defence might be founded.

In cases where no such practice exists, s 5O can have no application.

The question of standard of care and breach would then fall to be determined by the court, applying common law principles, “guided by the evidence of medical practitioners skilled in the area of medical practice in question” [321], and altered (to the extent that it is altered) by the principles set out in 5B [see [338] per Simpson JA].

 

So, on what basis did the  majority Justices consider that Dr Sparks had breached his duty of care?

Justices Basten and Macfarlan held against Dr Sparks.

According to Justice Macfarlan, Dr Sparks’ failure to terminate the operation was not limited to a short period of time, but extended for at least 20 minutes after the two telephone calls to Dr Barratt and Dr Marshmann until 9.25pm, when Mr Hobson’s blood pressure and oxygen level dropped.  By then the damage had been done.

Essentially, Justice Macfarlan thought the breach of duty was made out because Dr Sparks unreasonably ignored a “serious and imminent intra-operative danger” (the high carbon dioxide levels) when the other countervailing risk (the risk to Mr Hobson if the operation was terminated) did not have the same immediacy: [188].

Also, “Dr Sparks had to assess and respond to the immediate danger to Mr Hobson (rather than the more remote risks that could eventuate if the operation was not completed) because Dr Sparks’ duty as principal anaesthetist was to protect the patient’s well-being whilst the operation was in progress” [182].

Justice Basten agreed that the decision to allow the operation to continue for so long, after he had sought help from experienced colleagues, without success, was more than just an “erroneous clinical judgment” but was a breach of his duty of care to Mr Sparks [93].

Liability for failure to effectively manage morbidly obese patients: it’s time to look again at Varipatis v Almario – here’s why

What should a GP do with a morbidly obese patient who is in denial about their weight problem?

Although it involved a complex set of facts, it’s time to revisit Almario v Varipatis (No 2) [2012] NSWSC 1578, reversed on appeal (Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76).

Doctors should take no comfort in the fact that Dr Varipatis’ liability was reversed on appeal.  It’s doubtful the case would be decided the same way today.  This post explains why.

Judgments in both courts remain important for their discussion about what a GP’s duty of care requires in terms of specialist referral [see box at the end of this post].

In future, more and more Australian GPs will end up managing obesity and its complications.  The problem is only going to get worse, given the changes in the weight distribution of the population, and the reluctance of Australian governments to take prevention seriously.  In 2014-2015, 63.4% of Australian adults – that’s 11.2 million people – were either overweight or obese, and more than 5% had diabetes.

280 Australians develop preventable Type II diabetes each day (one person every five minutes).

Click here for a recent report prepared by Obesity Australia in partnership with PwC on the cost of obesity in Australia.

Revisiting Almario v Varipatis (No 2)

At the time he became a patient of Dr Varipatis, in 1997, Mr Almario had fatty liver disease and diabetes.  Both problems arose from his obesity.  Both problems were risk factors for more severe kinds of liver disease that could progress to cirrhosis and ultimately liver cancer.

However, Mr Almario was in denial about his weight problem, and believed his health problems were due to exposure to toxic chemicals in the workplace.

Mr Almario had previously worked as a cleaner at the Union Carbide Centre at Rhodes in Sydney, which was a contaminated site.  Mr Almario was not directly involved in remediating the site, but had cleaned toilets and showers used by those who were directly involved.

There was no evidence his liver problems were caused by toxic exposures.

Nevertheless, Mr Almario sought out Dr Varipatis because the latter had an interest in nutritional and environmental medicine.

In 2009 Dr Varipatis had been found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct for administering high doses of IV vitamin C to a patient with renal disease.

Dr Varipatis treated Mr Almario between August 1997 and February 2011.  Mr Almario developed cirrhosis in 2001, and this progressed to liver cancer in 2011.

Trial court decision

When it reached the NSW Supreme Court in 2012, Mr Almario’s legal case was essentially that Dr Varipatis’ duty of care required him to take active steps to address Mr Almario’s morbid obesity.

Mr Almario had a history of failed weight loss attempts, and given his beliefs about toxic exposures, he was not a compliant patient.  Nevertheless, there were two main opportunities to prevent further deterioration to Mr Almario’s health: to refer him to a multi-disciplinary obesity clinic or endocrinologist; or to refer him for assessment for bariatric surgery (waist band surgery that physically constricts the size of the stomach and the amount of food that can enter it).

Mr Almario’s case was based on the claim that if he had undergone bariatric surgery, then it was likely he would have lost significant weight: this would have halted the progression of liver disease, preventing the cirrhosis and liver cancer that are complications of liver disease.

In his judgment, the trial judge repeatedly said that the patient had the disease of morbid obesity and that it was life threatening: Almario v Varipatis (No 2) [2012] NSWSC 1578 (21 December 2012), [67], [83], [93], [98].

The trial judge found that given Mr Almario’s co-morbidities and history of failed weight loss attempts, a reasonable GP would have referred Mr Almario to a surgeon for assessment for bariatric surgery by mid-1998: [91]-[93].

In addition, the trial judge found that Dr Varipatis breached his duty of care in failing – by mid 1998 – to refer Mr Almario to a specialist in obesity management who could have investigated all options for managing Mr Almario’s morbid obesity: [98].

The trial judge stressed that management of a patient like Mr Almario was not a passive process.  “More pro-active involvement was required” even to the point of making the appointment for Mr Almario to attend an obesity management specialist: [97].

Varipatis on appeal

On appeal, the NSW Court of Appeal considered three issues.

(i) Doctors may have a duty to refer (although it is not an exercise in futility)

The Court of Appeal said unambiguously that a general practitioner’s duty of reasonable care to their patient may require them to encourage the patient to lose weight, and to encourage the patient to accept an appropriate referral.

Basten JA accepted that the duty of reasonable care may require a GP to advise a patient “in unequivocal terms that weight loss is necessary to protect his or her health, to discuss the means by which that may be achieved and to offer (and encourage acceptance of) referrals to appropriate specialists or clinics”: Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, [38].

On the other hand, that didn’t mean the GP has to write futile referrals if the patient has refused to take the doctor’s firm advice.

The duty of care is not an exercise in futility.

In this case, since the plaintiff had historically failed to follow the advice of his GP, the Court of Appeal thought that there could be no breach of duty in failing to “re-refer” the plaintiff to an obesity clinic: Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, [38]-[39], [114], [118].

(ii) Failure to refer for assessment for bariatric surgery was not a breach of duty (but is that a reasonable conclusion today?)

As far as referral for bariatric surgery was concerned, the Court of Appeal found that the weight of evidence did not support a duty to refer for assessment for bariatric surgery in 1998, since at that time the procedure still carried significant risks and was very uncommon: Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, [51][64], [118].

However, general practitioners should find no comfort in this finding.

Bariatric surgery is now much more common and performed on patients with a BMI of ≥40k/m2 or on those with a BMI of 35k/m2 or more and who have co-morbidies such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

Over the past 15 years, the number of bariatric procedures processed by the Australian Medicare system has risen from around 1,350 (2000) to more than 16,700 (2015).

(iii) Failure to refer to an hepatologist?

Thirdly, the trial judge, and the Court of Appeal found that even if the plaintiff had been referred to a hepatologist, Mr Varipatis would have failed (in the absence of bariatric surgery) to achieve weight loss.

Obesity was not understood to be a cause of liver disease before 2002, and there was no evidence that a hepatologist would have done anything other than advise the patient to lose weight, or refer the plaintiff to an obesity clinic: Almario v Varpiatis (No 2) [2012] NSWSC 1578, [155]-[157]; Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, [75]-[88], [118].

Understanding about the role of obesity in liver disease has developed since Dr Varipatis was treating Mr Almario, and if this case were re-litigated today, a court would be unlikely to conclude that no harm arose from failure to refer for specialist assessment.

Meagher JA also dismissed the appeal on the basis that a doctor will not be liable if a defendant can prove that, having taken a course of action that was consistent with reasonable care, the harm suffered would not have been avoided on the balance of probabilities.

In his Honour’s view, in circumstances where a doctor could discharge their duty by taking one or more precautions, the defendant doctor need only show that had they taken one of the precautions that was consistent with reasonable care, it would not likely have avoided the harm suffered by the plaintiff: Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, [106], [118].

 

So…why is the Varipatis decision worth re-visiting?

Dr Varipatis was essentially excused by the fact that his patient had a history of being unable or unwilling to follow advice, bariatric surgery for extreme obesity was still unusual in 1998, and because obesity was not understood as a cause of liver disease.

Close to 20 years later, the factual matrix that arose in Varipatis is really a wake-up call for medical practitioners to respond more aggressively and with a clear strategy to patients who present with severe obesity.[1]

Much more would be expected of GPs in 2017, I believe, than was the case in 1998.

Firstly, GPs could be exposed to lawsuits by obese patients who face fatal outcomes or complications as a result of their failure to receive timely assessment and referral.  That follows from basic principles well established in other cases.

Secondly, complaints against GPs might also be directed to the Health Care Complaints Commission, or to the Medical Council of NSW.  In such circumstances, there would be no need to prove that the complainant suffered harm or damage.

Thirdly, and admittedly in more unusual circumstances, health and social service professionals might also be liable for failure to comply with mandatory notification obligations.

Inquest into the death of “AA”

It’s worth considering all three possibilities against the facts that emerged in the Inquest into the Death of “AA”, a decision handed down on 26 September 2014.

On 29 September 2010, a 10 year-old boy called “AA” died quietly on the way to the John Hunter hospital.

He died from hypoxic brain injury following a cardio-respiratory arrest that was caused by his severe obesity, a condition that his parents had failed to address.

His death was largely unnoticed by the media.

It illustrates the wider epidemic of severe pediatric obesity, which is getting worse.

As the weight distribution of the pediatric population has shifted to the right, those on the extreme right (ie cases of severe pediatric obesity) risk falling off the edge.

The Coroner’s report details the interactions over the preceding two and a half years between AA and his school and the John Hunter hospital.

AA had severe obstructive sleep apnea and a history of missed medical appointments that the Coroner found amounted to medical neglect.

AA’s sister and his parents didn’t realize how critical the situation was because AA was frequently drowsy as a result of obstructive sleep apnea (para 237).

The Coroner found that Child Protection Intervention was necessary for AA’s medical condition to be addressed, because his parents were unable to help him.

Obesity and child protection

In a paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2009, Shirley Alexander, Louise Bauer, Bernadette Tobin and I argued that in appropriate circumstances, failure to notify child protection services when parents of a grossly obese child are unable or unwilling to ensure he or she receives adequate support to moderate food intake and improve diet may constitute a breach of mandatory reporting provisions.

A child is at risk of significant harm if the child’s parents or caregivers are “unable or unwilling” for the child to receive “necessary medical care” (Children and Young Persons Care and Protection Act 1998 (NSW) s 23(b)(1)).

Broader determinants

Actions like referring a morbidly obese child to child protection services illustrate individual-specific solutions to a problem that has wider, societal causes.

A smarter, longer-term solution would be to moderate the influences that have contributed to children having the life-threatening disease of severe obesity.

In July 2016, the NSW government set itself a target of reducing overweight and obesity rates in children by 5% over 10 years: see NSW Strategic Plan for Children and Young People.

Reaching this target will require a basket of actions and will inevitably include the need to improve the food environment.

 

GPs duty of care and specialist referral

It has long been clear that doctors can breach their duty of care by failing to refer a patient for further investigation and management by specialists.  For example, in the missed cancer diagnosis case of O’Shea v Sullivan (1994) Aust Torts Reports 81-271, the court referred to the “golden rule” that “abnormal bleeding is due to cancer until proven otherwise”.  In PD v Harvey [2003] NSWSC 487, Cripps AJ found that the failure of GPs not to follow up a patient with HIV to ensure he kept an appointment they made for him at the Royal Prince Alfred Immunology Clinic was also a failure of reasonable care (para 70).  The patient in question went on to deceive (and infect) his sexual partner, who believed he was HIV negative.

[1] See Sally Gleeson, “Almario v Varipatis – A Weight Issue for General Practitioners”, Precedent (Sydney, N.S.W.), No. 121, Mar/Apr 2014: 48-50.