Friday 20 April 2018

Symphiostomy on mother (18) ‘unjustified’ but damages cut by €125k in Supreme Court

Tim Healy

THE Supreme Court today upheld a High Court finding that a symphiostomy procedure carried out on an 18-year-old woman when having her first baby was "entirely unjustified and unwarranted" but has cut the damages awarded to her from €450,000 to €325,000.

The "entire fault" for what occurred to Mrs Olivia Kearney at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda in 1969 lay with the obstetrician who carried out the procedure, Dr Gerard Connolly - since deceased - "and no one else", the five judge court ruled.

The procedure, carried out on an 18 year old woman when she was unconscious and anaesthised after giving birth to her first baby, "was wrong, even by the standards of the time" and there was "no rationale for it", the court said.

Dr Connolly's medical notes at the time did not contain the essential medical justification for symphysiotomy - disproportion of the pelvis in relation to the size of the baby's head.

The Supreme Court agreed there was no need for the symphysiotomy in Mrs Kearney's case because subsequent measurements indicated her pelvis was normal and there was therefore no need to enlarge the pelvis.

Mrs Kearney's son was delivered by caesarean section on October 19th 1969. The symphysiotomy, a procedure dating back to the 18th century, was carried out afterwards and left her in such a condition she was unable to get out of bed to see the baby until six days later when her husband took her in a wheelchair to see their child.

She did not know she had had a symphisiotomy until nearly 33 years later when she had a radio programme discussion in which women described their experiences following such operations.

As a result of the procedure, Mrs Kearney suffered profound ongoing pain and later suffered continuous back pain, incontinence and depression, Mr Justice John MacMenamin noted.

She had hoped for a large family but, after the procedure, could not bear the prospect of future pregancies. She undoubtedly suffered serious trauma in 2002 when she finally established she had had an unnecessary symphiostomy.

Mrs Kearney, of Castlebellingham, Co Louth, wept as the judge outlined those findings today in a judgment with which the four other Supreme Court judges agreed.

The court unanimously dismissed the appeal by the Medical Missionaries of Mary, in its capacity as owner of the Lourdes Hospital in 1969, against the finding of High Court judge, Mr Justice Sean Ryan, that it was liable for the injuries suffered arising from the procedure.

However, the court ruled the High Court erred in awarding €450,000 general damages and said it would reduce that sum to €325,000. Despite the traumatic events that befell Mrs Kearney, she had carried on "a relatively normal life" despite various medical propblems until 2002, when she first learned what had happened to her, it said.

In doing justice in the assessment of damages, a court has to have regard to the wide range of cases which may come before it, Mr Justice MacMenamin said. Such cases may involve people who suffer catastrophic and grossly deforming physicial inuries.

While not underestimating the very serious nature of the injuries in this case and their effects, they fell short of the highest category of awards for general damages and the court would cut the award to €325,000, he said.

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