Belfast Telegraph

Widow of man whose death was wrongly linked to syphilis disease loses legal battle for damages

By Alan Erwin

The widow of a man whose death was wrongly linked to the disease of syphilis has lost her legal battle for damages.

The woman, who is from Northern Ireland but cannot be named, sued over the incorrect diagnosis reached 32 years ago.

But senior judges in Belfast today dismissed her appeal against a High Court ruling that her action against the Department of Justice was hopeless.

Despite acknowledging her decades of hurt and distress, Lord Justice Weir said: "There is a complete absence of any medical or other opinion... that by the professional standards and medical knowledge of the time the pathologist was negligent."

The woman, referred to as HK, lost her husband suddenly in 1985.

An autopsy performed at the time led to the cause of his death being attributed to a syphilis-related heart condition.

HK refused to accept her husband ever had the disease which is primarily transmitted through sexual activity.

In 2005 a London-based consultant in histopathology reviewed the original autopsy report.

She concluded that it was not syphilis, but more likely an auto-immune problem that caused the fatal aortic disease.

Later, however, the consultant also confirmed her opinion that the cause of death was adequately investigated by the standards of 1985.

HK sued the Department for the alleged negligence of the pathologist in failing to accurately diagnose the cause of death.

She also claimed damages for the coroner's failure to hold an inquest.

The widow alleged that she had sustained a severe psychiatric injury.

Representing herself, HK took her case to the Court of Appeal after her case was repeatedly rejected at earlier stages.

But Lord Justice Weir, sitting with Lord Justice Gillen, held that the High Court conclusions were plainly correct.

"We do not overlook or underestimate the genuine and deep distress that the applicant suffered for many years on being told of and thereafter having had to life with what proved to be an entirely incorrect and most hurtful diagnosis of the cause of her husband's death," he said.

"To her considerable credit she continued after that diagnosis to believe and assert that any connection with the disease of syphilis must have been mistaken so far as her husband was concerned.

"So indeed, 20 years later, it proved to have been and the applicant's constant opinion was entirely vindicated."

Nevertheless, the judges stressed that the issue was what would have been expected of the pathologist in 1985, when he reached a diagnosis after consulting two colleagues.

All expert evidence pointed away from any alleged negligence, they held.

Rejecting the claim against the coroner's actions, the appeal judges found he could not be blamed for accepting the cause of death identified by the pathologist.

Urging HK not to pursue any further legal action, Lord Justice Weir advised it "could only lead to continuing dissatisfaction and unhappiness which must be most unhelpful to her after all these years and at this time in her life".

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