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Learning from loss.

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One of the saddest and most difficult aspects of dealing with clinical negligence and catastrophic injury claims is speaking to families who have suffered the loss of a loved one. At what is for them the most devastating time of their lives they, quite rightly and understandably, want support, information and guidance. In many cases the bereaved also want an opportunity to ask questions; to try to understand what has happened and to ensure that they are true to the memory of the deceased. Some, but by no means all, want to see individuals or organisations called to account. Few if any ask questions about compensation but almost all are acutely aware of their need to find some kind of justice for the deceased.

Sadly the structures for dealing with fatal incidents are rarely of real assistance to these individuals. Although Coroners Officers often do a wonderful job of providing support and practical advice to the bereaved there is no doubt that a Coroners Inquest can be deeply traumatic and somewhat bewildering experience for the bereaved. In some cases the inquest may not actually take place until more than a year after the death. This seems inexplicable to families – particularly where the death is thought to be a result of an asbestos related disease and the deceased had been diagnosed perhaps a year or so prior to death.

For those who suffer a bereavement where there are concerns about quality of medical care the situation is particularly difficult. Families may find it impossible to obtain detailed information about the medical treatment prior to the Inquest. Once there families will find that each clinician will have their own legal representation as will the Trust. The family, unable to access financial support to pay for representation, may be faced with a battery of lawyers; bewildering medical detail and an unfamiliar process. Given the limited remit of the Inquest it is not surprising that some families feel that the process fails to deliver the answers they would like to have.

Although the bereaved are rarely focused on the issue of recovering compensation these are issues on which as lawyers we have to advise. It is always difficult and very often distressing to have to explain that the potential value of a claim arising from the death of a young, single adult without dependants may be a few thousand pounds. Understandably families cannot comprehend that a claim arising from devastating injuries leading to death may result in an award of compensation lower than that for a whiplash injury or a sprained ankle.

In explaining these issues to clients I have often found myself saying that the law cannot put a value on a human life and that it does not try to do so. Many families opt to continue with cases notwithstanding the likely outcome. They remain motivated by the need for answers and a desire to prevent the tragedy being repeated.  It is profoundly sad that those who persevere with such claims may ultimately be left to feel that any compensation awarded is an insult to the memory of their loved ones

The reality is of course that some claims arising from fatal incidents may be challenging to investigate. The prospects of a successful outcome may be limited. For many, the emotional cost they would face in bringing the claim may seem too painful to contemplate.

Despite these issues few clients express any regret at having persevered with a claim. Most express the view that pursuing the matter has helped them to gain an understanding of events. Some explain that they feel a positive benefit from the experience either because they have pursued justice for their loved one or feel that they have ultimately helped prevent further such incidents occurring in the future.

It is clear that there are lessons to be learned from all serious accidents and injuries. If we are to work towards a safer world then It is critical that unnecessary and avoidable deaths are investigated and, where appropriate, compensated. If families are discouraged from taking action by the potential cost of litigation and the limited outcomes available then we may fail to make the progress we would all like to see.