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Julie acted for the bereaved husband and children of a 44-year-old woman who died from pneumonia and sepsis after a series of GP surgery and hospital errors.

The deceased had needed medical treatment for frequent chest infections for over 14 years. In the year before her death, she attended the GP with symptoms including crackling in her lungs with phlegm, persistent cough and breathlessness which had not responded to antibiotics. She was given different antibiotics, an inhaler, and a sputum (phlegm) test which revealed a serious bacterial chest infection. The GP noted that she should be reviewed the next week, but no review took place. 

A month later, after a chesty cough, the GP provisionally diagnosed COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) caused by smoking. Her inhalers were stopped, and the plan was to review her. She was referred for lung function spirometry tests. Two sets of spirometry results were near normal, which, if she had been reviewed as planned, should have caused the GP to question the COPD diagnosis. However, again, no review took place.

She called the surgery and reported severe chest symptoms including cough, chest tightness and discoloured sputum to the surgery’s doctors and nurses on three more occasions over the next six months. Each time she was given new medication. On one occasion it was incorrectly assumed she was asthmatic, but she was never followed up or reviewed despite the changes in medication. 

A month before her death, in a telephone call to the GP, she complained of an ongoing cough, tight chest, diarrhoea, and pain in her abdomen, lower back and legs. She was visited the next day by a community nurse from the surgery who noted her lengthy chest infection, chest symptoms, weak legs and elevated pulse rate. After the nurse’s visit, the GP noted a plan to give her further antibiotics and an x-ray if her symptoms didn’t improve. Yet again no review or follow up took place.

She was taken by ambulance to hospital. She was unwell, weak and slurring her words. The paramedics noted that she had been unwell for ten days with recent weight loss, decreased mobility and increased urine. Her skin was blotchy. They queried infection as a possible cause. On admission to hospital, she was seen by a doctor who noted that she was frail, cachexic (body wasting and weakness from chronic illness), shaky, warm and well perfused (good blood circulation) with finger clubbing (associated with lung conditions), and an abnormally high heart rate. She had a widespread, blotchy, red rash on her trunk, arms and legs and her breathing was abnormal. She was assessed as low risk for sepsis. After various tests, she was diagnosed with viral illness and discharged from hospital with advice to take paracetamol and increase her fluids.

Unable to get to the surgery, she spoke to the nurse practitioner on the telephone the next day. She was given further antibiotics and prednisolone and advised to call the out of hours service or GP if she needed further help. No face to face review was arranged. 

Two days later she spoke to the nurse again. She now had a sore mouth and throat causing pain on eating and swallowing. She was to continue her antibiotics and prednisolone and to try a different mouthwash. No in person review was arranged.

Five days later she spoke to the GP on the telephone. She told the doctor she had run out of steroids but was unwell and her rash was still very bad. The GP prescribed more steroids and antibiotics. The GP noted that she had not been seen by anyone at the GP practice since her admission to hospital and that if she requested any further medication a face to face consultation would be required.

About a week later, a nurse from the GP surgery visited her at home. The nurse noted her abnormal breathing rate, pulse, blood pressure and temperature, and crackling lung sounds and called an emergency ambulance to take her to hospital with a diagnosis of suspected sepsis. The paramedics confirmed the diagnosis of sepsis and warned the hospital. She was treated for sepsis on arrival and was transferred for critical care but died the next morning. The cause of death was sepsis with multi organ failure and pneumonia. 

The woman’s husband asked us for help in pursuing a medical negligence claim on behalf of himself and the three children. We investigated and put the claim to both the hospital and the GP surgery whose repeated mistakes, missed opportunities to review, refer for respiratory specialist advice or correctly diagnose the deceased led to her avoidable death. If she had been correctly treated by the hospital on her first admission or referred to hospital by the GP surgery on any of the occasions before her final admission, correct treatment would have prevented her death. 

The NHS Trust responded by admitting liability on behalf of the hospital and issued an apology to the family. We are now applying for an interim payment to ease the family’s financial hardship whilst we work with the widower and our experts to value this complex and tragic claim.

If a member of your family has died as a result of medical negligence leaving dependent family, and you would like to find out more about making a claim, contact us by email at mednegclaims@boyesturner.com.