20:13, January 29 74 0 theguardian.com

2021-01-29 20:13:04
Family wins lawsuit against NHS trust over woman’s decomposed body

The family of a woman whom they suspect was killed has won a lawsuit against a health trust that allowed her body to decompose to the point that experts were unable to rule out third-party involvement in the death in a first-of-its kind ruling.

In a judgment handed down on Friday, Judge Andrew Saffman concluded that Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS trust had breached human rights laws by failing to preserve Emily Whelan’s body, and awarded the family damages.

Matthew Gold, the solicitor for the Whelan family, said it was the first time a court had ruled a hospital had a legal obligation to ensure a body did not badly decompose to prevent a breach of article 8 of the European convention on human rights, the right to respect for private and family life.

Six members of Whelan’s family, including her mother and siblings, said the experience had a devastating impact on their mental health, leading to post-traumatic stress.

Speaking after the ruling, Whelan’s mother, Caramella Brennan, said: “The Leeds NHS trust has failed to accept any responsibility for its role in this terrible incident and the impact it has had on us. The trust has fought the family right through the case. The family’s conviction in wanting to hold the hospital to account for its unacceptable conduct has been vindicated by the court. We could not have done more to respect our memories of Emily and the role she played in all our lives.”

Whelan, 25, was found unresponsive in her bedroom in Leeds on 7 November 2016 and taken to Leeds general infirmary. Her family was told that Whelan, who had epilepsy, had experienced a seizure. She died in hospital the next day, with an initial cause of death given as a hypoxic-ischaemic brain injury – lack of oxygen to the brain – after a cardiac arrest. The underlying cause of the cardiac arrest was not determined.

Whelan’s family immediately suspected foul play and told police they believed an individual known to her had questions to answer. After 10 months, a forensic postmortem was ordered. But when the pathologist came to examine the body, it had decomposed, hampering his ability to conduct a thorough investigation. A police investigation concluded there was no third-party involvement.

Gold said: “To permit a body to so badly decompose that it becomes unrecognisable is not just morally repugnant it is now unlawful. The family’s long and hard fight against the Leeds NHS trust has been vindicated and will hopefully, as the judgment points out, result in mortuaries improving their practices to ensure that this does not happen again.”

Whelan’s body was stored at the Leeds mortuary, managed by the trust, for a month before being transferred to Bradford.

The court heard evidence that the body was already decomposed when it was received by the Bradford mortuary. The Leeds trust had denied this.

A forensic postmortem instructed by the coroner was carried out by Dr MS Lyall on 11 October 2017, almost a year after she had died. Lyall said he “carefully considered” whether Whelan’s death could have been caused “by injuries inflicted by another person”. He said his examination of the body was “severely hampered by changes of decomposition”.

Topics