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Medicine and manslaughter

Last year’s custodial sentence for surgeon David Sellu, following a verdict of gross negligence manslaughter, raised concerns within the profession. Former Casebook Editor-in-chief Dr Stephanie Bown met with Professor Norman Williams, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, to discuss what the ruling means for healthcare professionals.

Medical manslaughter – the background

The law, as it stands, was stated in the case of Adomako (1995) 1 AC 171. In this case the defendant, an anaesthetist, failed to notice for six minutes during an operation that the oxygen supply to the patient had become disconnected from the ventilator. As a result the patient suffered a cardiac arrest and died. The House of Lords affirmed the conviction, and the elements of the offence were specified as:

  • The defendant owed the victim a duty of care
  • The defendant breached that duty
  • The breach caused (or significantly contributed to) the victim’s death
  • The breach was grossly negligent. The key point is that it is a matter for the jury to determine whether the breach was grossly negligent.

In summing up, Lord MacKay stated: “The jury will have to consider whether the extent to which the defendant’s conduct departed from the proper standard of care incumbent upon him, involving as it must have done a risk of death to the patient, was such that it should be judged criminal…The essence of the matter…is whether having regard to the risk of death involved, the conduct of the defendant was so bad in all the circumstances as to amount in their judgment to a criminal act of omission.”

The law as it stands has been criticised on a number of counts, but particularly because the reach of the criminal law in this area is left to be determined by the jury. When parliament enacted the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, no change was made to involuntary manslaughter; the reforms being confined to voluntary manslaughter. Observers at the time thought it unlikely any further reform of homicide would take place in the foreseeable future.

Medical manslaughter cases fall into the area of involuntary manslaughter. In English law, involuntary manslaughter takes two forms – unlawful act manslaughter and gross negligence manslaughter. It is the latter that gives rise to charges against healthcare practitioners.

Doctors in the dock In 2006, a paper1 published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine by Ferner and McDowell looked at the number of doctors charged with medical manslaughter between 1795 and 2005. The review found that 85 doctors had been charged with manslaughter in the UK since 1795, 38 of them since 1990. Of these 60 were acquitted, compared to 22 recorded convictions and three guilty pleas.

Other widely-reported cases include:

  • Dr Freda Mulhem (2003)
  • Wayne Jowett, 18, was in remission from acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, and had entered the maintenance phase of his treatment. In January 2001 he was inadvertently given vincristine intrathecally. The sequence of events leading to this were complex and involved multiple errors and breaches of protocol by a number of staff. An analysis of the circumstances can be found online.2

    Despite this, the registrar, Dr Mulhem, was charged and convicted of manslaughter in 2003. He was sentenced to eight months, and a further ten months on unrelated assault charges. As he had already served 11 months on remand, he was released from custody. The GMC subsequently suspended him for 12 months.

  • Mr Steven Walker (2004)
  • Mr Steven Walker was found guilty in 2004, after changing his plea to guilty, of the manslaughter of a female patient who suffered catastrophic blood loss during an operation to remove a liver tumour in 1995. He admitted he should have stopped the operation after finding the tumour was double the expected size and close to key blood vessels. Mr Walker received a 21-month suspended jail sentence and was erased from the medical register in 2005.

    In November 2013 the case again hit the headlines when Mr Walker applied for restoration to the register.3 Following adverse opinion, he withdrew his application.

  • Dr Michael Stevenson (2007)
  • A 54-year-old GP, Dr Stevenson admitted manslaughter after a patient died in 2005 when he injected six times the required dose of diamorphine for migraine. He made the same error on his next visit, but the second patient survived. He received a suspended sentence of 15 months in 2007. The GMC erased him from the register in September 2009.

  • Dr Bala Kovvali (2013)
  • Dr Kovvali diagnosed depression in a middle-aged patient who died shortly afterwards from diabetic ketoacidosis. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a two-and-a-half year custodial sentence. An appeal against the length of sentence was unsuccessful, and he was subsequently erased from the medical register.

  • Mr David Sellu (2013)
  • This recent case resulted in a custodial sentence of two and a half years. The case involved a patient admitted to a private unit for a knee replacement. Postoperatively the patient developed abdominal symptoms and Mr Sellu was asked to review the patient. The patient subsequently died following a laparotomy, and it was alleged that there had been an inappropriate delay in the diagnosis and treatment of a perforated bowel. The experts for the prosecution and the defence disagreed over whether Mr Sellu’s actions were reasonable in the circumstances. The conclusion was that there was a lack of urgency in the investigation and treatment of the patient.

Case study: Mr David Sellu

The custodial sentence imposed on Mr Sellu has caused surprise and consternation among the medical profession. As President of the Royal College of Surgeons, Professor Norman Williams has been uniquely placed to hear the concerns of Mr Sellu’s wider surgical fraternity.

On the defensive

Although one can reasonably observe that the David Sellu case simply reflects the times in which we live – and more specifically the level of expectations patients have of us – the consequences mean that there is a real risk for doctors to practise defensive medicine. This is, of course, the pursuit of unnecessary investigations – the ordering of tests, treatments, etc, that help protect the doctor rather than to further the patient’s diagnosis.

Dr David Studdert identified two types of defensive medicine:

  • Assurance behaviour (positive defensive medicine) – providing services of no medical value with the aim of reducing adverse outcomes, or persuading the legal system that the standard of care was met, eg, ordering tests, referring patients, increased follow up, prescribing unnecessary drugs.
  • Avoidance behaviour (negative defensive medicine) – reflects doctors’ attempts to distance themselves from sources of legal risk, eg, forgoing invasive procedures, removing high-risk patients from lists.

Defensive medicine can make your practice more risky. Unnecessary treatment – particularly invasive procedures – could actually increase the risk of litigation. Some tests have their own inherent risks and doctors could potentially be criticised for ordering investigations that are not in patients’ best interests (eg, if the risks associated with the procedures outweigh any potential benefit to the patient).

I suppose patients have always expected very high standards but they also had a high level of trust in us and that trust has been eroded in recent years, with the problems with Mid Staffs. We have to understand that

Professor Williams says: “I suppose patients have always expected very high standards but they also had a high level of trust in us and that trust has been eroded in recent years, with the problems with Mid Staffs. We have to understand that. Yes, we can bridle, it’s unfair, but that’s not the point here; I think we have to accept that. Therefore we have to be meticulous in exactly what we do and also we have to record everything very carefully.”

Protecting yourself

Professor Williams sees the practical implications of the Sellu ruling as reiterations of long-established advice. He says: "I think doctors have to ensure that they write everything down that relates to a consultation, such as management plans, etc. It’s no good relying on verbal instructions, so you have to be very clear – and handwriting has to be legible.

"You have to be candid with patients and tell them what you are planning to do; informed consent should mean informed consent – you must discuss very clearly the possible pros and cons of any procedure you’re about to embark on. You must make sure that the patient understands that and talks back to you to confirm they have been properly informed, and you need to judge the capacity of the patient to understand. It also goes without saying that you have to be compassionate and caring."

If things go wrong

Of course, adverse events are inevitable in medicine. Openness and effective communication in the aftermath is essential – not only is it the right thing to do, but it can be a pivotal factor in determining whether a patient makes a claim for compensation. Professor Williams says: “First of all in any adverse event, we all have a professional duty of candour and if anything does go wrong you have to apologise, and it should be a sincere apology, not just to get you out of trouble. This should be accompanied by an explanation of what has gone wrong, and why, and how it has led to harm and what you are going to do about it. An apology doesn’t mean you are liable.”

Many doctors support the concept of open disclosure but have personal concerns that in responding to a patient, they may inadvertently expose themselves to further criticism or legal action – but it must be remembered that an apology is not an admission of liability. MPS has long supported a position of open communication and our advice to members is to be open when things go wrong.

This openness extends to reports to the coroner upon a patient’s death. It is essential that your MDO looks at any such report before it goes anywhere else – in addition, please see the MPS Reporting Deaths to the Coroner factsheet.


Looking back over many of the cases involving manslaughter convictions for doctors, some common themes emerge.

They often contain serious errors by parties other than the accused; there are associated system errors – sometimes multiple; and the cases are sometimes complicated by associated factors, such as attempts to conceal or alter medical records. Be meticulous in your note-keeping, and always be honest and open about the facts.  

If an incident is followed by a criminal investigation, any account of the incident will be scrutinised and challenged – with any inconsistencies leaving a doctor extremely vulnerable. MPS members involved in the care of a patient who dies should consider making immediate contact with us, to ensure expert medicolegal advice is available as soon as possible.

Be meticulous in your note-keeping, and always be honest and open about the facts

Most importantly, in any case where there serious concerns around the sequence of events, or an indication of a criminal investigation or inquiry, make sure you take professional medicolegal advice before taking any other steps.

What lies ahead

A change in the law on gross negligence manslaughter is highly unlikely in the current climate. The Law Commission has reviewed the law twice, with the most recent review not recommending any change.

The Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which was the most recent review of the law, left the law on gross negligence manslaughter unchanged. Changes to some other aspects of cases might gain more traction, such as pushing for a specific offence of medical manslaughter, with a more appropriate definition. How the law will evolve in relation to gross negligence manslaughter in the future is uncertain, but MPS will continue to monitor events – and the potential impact on the medical profession – closely.

Words: Gareth Gillespie

  1. Studdert D et al, Defensive Medicine Among High-Risk Specialist Physicians in a Volatile Malpractice Environment, JAMA (2005)
  2. Ferner RE, McDowell SE, Doctors charged with manslaughter in the course of medical practice, 1795–2005: a literature review, J R Soc Med 99: 309-314 (2006)
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  • By Paul on 05 February 2018 08:52 Working in a&e  I  practice defensive  medicine.......99% XRays  I order knowing will be negative...many unnecessory CT Scans..countless blood tests...many antibiotics courses....
  • By Matt Dunckley on 22 November 2016 11:10 By way of an amazing update Mr David Sellu's conviction was quashed in the Court of Appeal on 15/11/16. Doing these prosecutions makes patients less safe as one person is made to shoulder all the blame and is scapegoated with their life being ruined in the process. I really hope the government get hold of this and realised that the threat of civil and especially criminal prosecutions simply drive defensive medicine.
  • By Jar on 28 September 2015 09:43

    Bryan, If you this this is bad, wait till you hear of the new Willful Neglect Act.

    I am not certain, if even most doctors in the UK are aware of this !!

  • By Bryan on 26 September 2015 04:17 Holy ****!  You can be brought up on criminal charges for medical malpractice in the UK?!  I have people die on me on a regular basis in the emergency department, and I would not want to go to jail for it.  No wonder I've met so many British doctors coming to the US.
  • By Barbara on 20 September 2015 05:51

    Paul I share your thoughts completely. I to am battling with health service over the death of a relative in a hospital.

    Experienced a sham of a inquest, a complete cover up.

    I have now spent over three years trying to obtain the truth regarding relatives death. I am now totally shocked by what I have uncovered. Shame on the Coroners Court.



  • By Helen on 01 June 2015 11:58

    There are doctors who are dishonest. David Sellu does not strike me as a dishonest man. I am sure he did not start out in medicine with any intention of killing anyone. This case strikes me as a case where the whole team has fallen down. The Hungarian doctor who has poor language skills who did not communicate the urgency of the situation. The knee surgeon who should have been going to see the patient every day and could see the deterioration and refer the case to another abdominal consultant if David Sellu was not doing his job. The nursing staff who could have overridden the decision of the consultants when they noted the deterioration, been assertive and blue lighted the patient to the district general hospital.

    Bmi are in a dispute with the Royal College of Nursing hence not paying overtime to theatre staff so they would not have come into open theatres at night even though a 24 hour service. Many private hospitals do not have an anaesthetist on call hence David Sellu, may not have been able to operate. His poor record keeping due to his heavy schedule may have let him down.

    There is a shortage of anaesthetists and Mr Sellu was made an example as an scapegoat I fear. The whole multi disciplinary team failed because there was more than one consultant involved. Bmi have hung this man out to dry although he was also negligent due to human beings being fallible. The care qualitycommission should be involved in ensuring private hospitals have an anaesthetist on call at night. Private hospitals should not only be about profit 
    but patient care.

  • By Paul on 21 April 2015 05:23

    I think it's wrong that the inquest in to a persons death is done and delivers a verdict before the relatives are allowed access to the patients medical records.

    Once the inquest verdict is decided its very difficult to change even when it is clearly wrong. Everyone closes ranks on you, and sticks with the verdict of the inquest and the only possible chance you have to undo this is to apply to the high court. This is often beyond most peoples capability as not only is the system complexed, but also financially unachievable to most of the public, and this is who the Coroners service etc is meant to be in the tax payers best interest.

    If I was told the truth when the death of our relative happened instead of lies that can be clearly seen as lies when studying the medical records, I would not be pursuing a case now to get to the truth - which costs time, money, and stress for all parties involved. I don't agree people should be locked up for their mistakes within reason of course, but they should certainly be brought in to answer for their lies and deceit, as this does not help people to move forward with their lives after a death, it just prolongs the agony.

  • By paul on 21 April 2015 01:32  
    I have personally battled for truth over the death of a relative in hospital and covering up and doctoring of medical records, still goes on. Even the Coroners office ignores your evidence, and writes very little in response to your letters in order to cover their own asses.

    The Ombudsman won't go against the inquest verdict or the pathology report even if you can completely prove that it is all wrong. And now with no legal aid in place to help people, hospitals can literally get away with murder so to speak. Government run impartial services,HUH! what a load of guff.
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