13-year-old girl left quadriplegic after routine spinal operation wins case against Hospital
The Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital has been found negligent after Rebecca Ling, a 13-year-old girl from Wickford, Essex, was left quadriplegic and unable to breathe without a ventilator following a routine operation to correct the curvature of her spine. The High Court found that the surgeon had failed to halt the operation despite clear signs that the spinal cord was at risk.
Rebecca seeks several million pounds in compensation to pay for the round-the-clock care that she will require for the rest of her life.
Rebecca was admitted to The Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in 2006 to undergo the operation which would correct the curvature of her spine (scoliosis), a condition which in this case was caused by a genetic condition - Prader-Willi Syndrome. Throughout the operation she was connected to a monitor to detect nerve signals in the spinal cord. The purpose of these signals was to alert the surgeon to the possibility that damage was being done to the spinal cord and to allow him to take remedial action to ensure that any such damage was not permanent.
During the operation, the signals dropped significantly on two separate occasions. On the first occasion, the surgeon stopped the procedure, gave appropriate drugs and took steps to check whether the drop represented a technical fault with the equipment. As a result, the signals returned to an acceptable level and he continued the operation. When the signals dropped on the second occasion – this time by 80-90% - he chose to continue with the procedure without further pause.
Following the procedure Rebecca was initially unable to move her arms. Over the following hours, the paralysis spread to her legs and then her chest until she was no longer able to breathe without a ventilator. She had previously enjoyed a very active life but now requires, and will require for the rest of her life, round-the-clock care from two carers.
Rebecca's parents, Julia and Andy Ling, instructed Jonathan Zimmern, medical negligence barrister at law firm Fieldfisher, in a claim against The Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital. The claim was funded by Legal Aid. The High Court ruled that the surgeon had been negligent in continuing to operate once the signals dropped so dramatically for the second time. The claim is now being quantified but is likely to run to several million pounds. The hospital is appealing against the ruling.
Jonathan Zimmern said: “This was a major but relatively common operation. The tragic consequences that followed could have been avoided had the surgeon acted appropriately when the signals dropped to such a worrying level. The case was funded by Legal Aid and was contested by the hospital throughout the five years the litigation lasted. The hospital made no attempt to negotiate a settlement. It is of concern that if Rebecca had been paralysed after the proposed changes to the Legal Aid system in England and Wales take effect, it is unlikely that she would have been able to bring her case to court at all. If Legal Aid is removed for most clinical negligence cases, as is proposed, it will make cases such as these incredibly difficult to run."
Julia Ling said: “This has been absolutely devastating for my family. Before the operation my daughter was a happy, active child who lived a full life, enjoying dancing and horse riding. Now she is unable to move, or feel anything from the neck down. She cannot breathe without a ventilator and needs constant care. We are relieved that the Judge has ruled that the hospital was at fault but we are devastated that despite his decision the hospital are still contemplating an appeal. Our daughter had to endure an entire, awful year in hospital after she was paralysed, followed by five more years whilst we tried our best to cope with her at home - financially and emotionally – and fight for compensation. Sadly, it seems we still have a long fight ahead of us to secure the financial support she so badly needs and deserves. We only hope that the hospital have learnt lessons from what happened to our daughter and that future spinal operations will be undertaken with more caution."
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