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22 October 2022 | Case Study | Article by Helen Dolan

Man left tetraplegic after doctors fail to diagnose spinal abscess

Settlement of £2 million after our client, Clive, suffered numbness in his legs and was told neck pain was muscular. After coming home from a holiday, Clive developed a cough which gradually worsened and left him with shoulder and neck pain when he coughed and moved. He went to see his GP who planned for an MRI scan if the pain continued. He also lost his appetite, began suffering from night sweats and his mobility was effected.

A few days later, Clive’s wife Sarah came downstairs to find him immobile on the sofa. She knew something was wrong and took him straight to A&E at their local hospital.

Clive was holding his neck in an awkward position and was in lots of pain when he arrived at A&E. He was seen by a junior doctor who did not ask any questions about how he had felt over the last few days and instead decided the issue was muscular. The junior doctor did no investigations and simply referred him back to his GP, suggesting he try physiotherapy.

The pain did not improve and a few days later he began to feel numbness in his lower body and weakness when trying to stand. The couple were so worried that they immediately called for an ambulance and Clive was taken back to the same hospital.

The doctor who carried out the assessment the second time round suspected something was severely wrong and ordered an MRI scan. The MRI revealed a spinal epidural abscess – a collection of pus around the spinal cord – and, after urgent neurosurgical opinion, Clive was transferred to a different hospital and admitted to the Critical Care Unit in preparation for surgery to drain the abscess.

Clive underwent drainage and cervical decompression to stabilise his spine, however by that point it was too late. As a result of the delay and the damage to his spinal cord, he was left tetraplegic.

Helen Dolan, Partner in the Clinical Negligence team at here at Hugh James, acted on Clive’s behalf. It was argued that the junior doctor failed to realise that the position in which our client was holding his neck was abnormal and not at all in keeping with a muscular sprain, and also failed to ask him any questions about his recent history. It was also argued that the junior doctor ought to have considered the possibility of a spinal abscess and should have undertaken further investigations which would have led to the diagnosis being made and surgery taking place before Clive’s spinal cord was irreparably damaged.

Clive is now bed-bound with complete motor and sensory loss. He requires 24 hour care and is dependent on others.

Although the Trust responsible for the hospital agreed that had our client undergone investigations when he first attended hospital the diagnosis would have been made, they did not agree that they should have carried those investigations out in the first place. After negotiations, we were successful in securing a settlement of £2,000,000 for Clive.

Helen Dolan commented:

Clive and his wife Sarah had put their trust in the doctor who saw Clive when he first attended A&E and were reassured that, despite all his problems, this doctor had carefully considered all the issues and concluded that he only had a strained muscle. Unfortunately that was not the case and our client has been left with a life altering condition which has completely changed both of their lives.

I was thrilled to be able to secure such a substantial settlement for Clive which will enable him and Sarah to buy a suitable property, enabling access to much needed therapies. No amount of money could possibly compensate for what has happened, but I hope that this settlement will go some way towards making both Clive and Sarah’s lives easier and more enjoyable.

The names and identifying details of the client have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals involved.

Author bio

Helen Dolan is Joint Head of the Manchester Office and Head of the Clinical Negligence team. Helen specialises in high value complex secondary brain injury, spinal cord injury (including cauda equina syndrome), birth injury, cerebral palsy and wrongful birth cases, and also has extensive experience of orthopaedic and surgical cases.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

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